The Curious World of Zombie Science

Zombies seem to be only growing in popularity, and I’m not talking about the biological kind

Brian Wolly

Zombies seem to be only growing in popularity, and I'm not talking about the biological kind. They've got their own television show, plenty of films, and even a musical. They invaded the world of Jane Austen, and there are zombie crawls around the world, in which people dress up like the living dead and shuffle across some urban area.

And then there's the growing field of zombie science.

In 2009, University of Ottawa mathematician Robert J. Smith? (and, yes, he really does include a question mark at the end of his name) published a paper in a book about infectious disease modeling titled "When Zombies Attack! Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection" (pdf). It started as a class project, when some students suggested they model zombies in his disease modeling class. "I think they thought I'd shoot it down," Smith told NPR, "but actually I said, go for it. That sounds really great. And it was just a fun way of really illustrating some of the process that you might have in modeling an infectious disease." Using math, the group showed that only by quickly and aggressively attacking the zombie population could normal humans hope to prevent the complete collapse of society.

That paper sparked further research. The latest contribution, "Zombies in the City: a NetLogo Model" (pdf) will appear in the upcoming book Mathematical Modelling of Zombies. In this new study, an epidemiologist and a mathematician at Australian National University refine the initial model and incorporate the higher speed of humans and our capacity to increase our skills through experience. They conclude that only when human skill levels are very low do the zombies have a chance of winning, while only high human skill levels ensure a human victory. "For the in-between state of moderate skill a substantial proportion of humans tend to survive, albeit in packs that are being forever chased by zombies," they write.

Then there's the question of whether math is really the most important discipline for surviving a zombie attack.

But how might zombies come about? There are some interesting theories, such as one based on arsenic from Deborah Blum at Speakeasy Science. Or these five scientific reasons a zombie apocalypse could happen, including brain parasites, neurotoxins and nanobots.

A Harvard psychiatrist, Steven Schlozman, broke into the field of zombie research and then wrote The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse, which blames an airborne contagion for the zombie phenomenon. The book delves into the (fictional) research of Stanley Blum, zombie expert, who searched for a cure to the zombie epidemic with a team of researchers on a remote island. (They were unsuccessful and succumbed to the plague, but nicely left their research notes behind, complete with drawings.) It's more than just fun fiction to Schlozman, though, who uses zombies to teach neuroscience. "If it works right, it makes students less risk-adverse, more willing to raise their hands and shout out ideas, because they’re talking about fictional characters," he told Medscape.

For those interested in getting an overview of the science, a (spoof) lecture on the subject, Zombie Science 1Z, can now be seen at several British science and fringe festivals. Zombiologist Doctor Austin, ZITS MSz BSz DPep, lectures in three modules: the zombieism condition, the cause of zombieism, and the prevention and curing of zombieism. And for those of us who can't attend in person, there's a textbook and online exam.

And the Zombie Research Society keeps track of all this and more, and also promotes zombie scholarship and zombie awareness month. Their slogan: "What you don't know can eat you."

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