On preparing for the coming zombie apocalypse

Uncertainty

Many people give me advice on what I should do as Dean of Science. Since my job can seem a little mysterious to people, I believe this gives rise to an opportunity for open-ended advice. And it turns out this advice is sometimes broached in pretty unequivocal terms.

It is as if people know that the zombies are coming, and that there will be an apocalypse, and that we will have to get ready — in some very particular way with a long list on a spreadsheet program for this particular type of zombies: lots of water, easy-to-carry dried food, not too many heavy canned goods or perishable foods, sturdy axes, saws, and sledge hammers. And I wonder: how do they know this? I don’t even know if the zombies are coming (I think not), and why would that lead to an apocalypse even if they came, and why should I fear walking zombies more than flying vampires or swimming werewolves? Might not my careful preparations for a zombie apocalypse result in stocking too few perishables, such as garlic, in the event of a vampire invasion?

Of course people do not actually give me advice about the coming zombie apocalypse. They give me advice about what academic programs our students should take, what preparation our students will need for the future, and what courses will be the most valuable. These things are very important to me and to everyone else at McGill, so I listen carefully. I often receive very specific advice, based upon someone’s past experiences, sometimes broached in pretty unequivocal terms. And I wonder: how do they know this? How does their past tell them what is coming in the future? I don’t know what the future holds; although like everyone else I would like to know. In fact, while I have been Dean, I have had the opportunity to talk to scientists and scholars, to government, to captains of industry, to artists, to visionary leaders, and in summary and in fact, to a selection of the brightest people on Earth — and I have asked them what they think will happen in the future.

Here is what I have learned: no one knows. And so that uncertainty is what is coming, and that is what we have to prepare for.

In a world where the future is uncertain, we need a place that creates new knowledge and new innovation indiscriminately. We need our young people to be challenged and to learn and to create that new knowledge so they are prepared for differing eventualities. We need to put our shoulders to the wheel for everyone’s good. This is what we do at Universities. A Science degree — with its breadth of impact, its transferable and encompassing technical background, its empowering basis in rationalism and empiricism — provides a grounding that will serve our young people well, whatever that future may be, zombie apocalypse or whatever comes to be.

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