April 18, 2011

The Curious World of Zombie Science

A zombie walk in Chile in 2010 (courtesy of flickr user rodolpho.reis)

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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1. Mercedes says:

Terrifying and fascinating! :)

2. Epic says:

The people that did this research had some brains.

Brains!

3. Nam Marine says:

4. RioRico says:

OK, so we’re rigourously modeling zombi-ism, a social / political metaphor. Why stop there? Why not rigourously model superheroes / supervillains? (Not necessarily based on Larry Niven’s analysis.) Or Welfare Cadillacs? Or Glenn Beck’s eschatology? So many metaphors, so few models…

5. Wily2 says:

HELL will be full of zombies, Hades is full of ‘all’ deceased w/o the only One True God (LORD JESUS CHRIST) so do not be a Zombie, run to Him now, life,s short, Lennon’s (Russian czar) is dead, Jesus Rose, yes, He is Alive!

6. Jonathan Colvin says:

Not just in science. Zombies make up a surprisingly important part of philosophy of consciousness. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_zombie

7. [...] The Smithsonian Surprising Science blog has compiled a list of real zombie science links including mathematical modeling work to determine how fast zombies would infect a populace, zombie biology and other source of information. Sadly, these sources are rather rudimentary. Where is the work on zombies and renewable energy or speciation? As we have seen time and time again, zombies vary widely – some are fast, others are slow and others have exotic traits and abilities, yet no work is being done to explain the evolution of the zombie. Categories : Zombie Links [...]

8. [...] Zombie fiction is hardly a specialty here at RWR, but we must note that Harvard psychiatrist Steven C. Schlozman has  just published The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse. It’s based on the recovered journals of Dr. Stanley Blum, who is already infected (as is two-thirds of humankind) with ataxic neurodegenerative satiety deficiency syndrome (ANSD)—the virus that makes flesh-eating zombies lurch and lunch—when he decamps to Bassas da India, an island overseen by the U.N., to vivisect captive zombies in the hope of isolating the pathogen before he succumbs to it.  His novel  is one of many zombie science resources discussed here. [...]

9. [...] chemically enhanced apes that attempt to take over our world. In the past on our site we’ve investigated zombies and kept a running record on robot technology, but the threat of ape rebellion had yet to be [...]

10. Kurt says:

It’s Lenin, not Lennon. Lennon was one of the Beatles. >:(

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