Just because zombies aren't real doesn't mean we can't learn from them.
When the zombie apocalypse comes, it will be swift and brutal. Within 100 days of the dead rising to feast on our flesh, only 273 people will remain. Or so suggests a grim estimate from students at the University of Leicester, published recently in the school's Journal of Physics Special Topics.
Okay, zombies aren't actually going to destroy the human race (probably). But that doesn't mean we can't study them. The new calculations are by no means the first example of a formal scientific investigation into the living dead.
There's plenty of research on "real-world" zombies, animals whose minds have been taken over by parasites. But some take this zombie-science obsession to another level. Zombies have been used to help us understand how infectious diseases spread, teach us about math or neuroscience, and improve our efforts to prepare for real crises.
When using math to predict how an outbreak will play out, zombie survivalists must ponder questions like: how many people can a zombie attack in a day? How likely is it that those victims will be infected? How quickly can the zombies be killed? How will our population's rate of zombification change as people become more skilled at killing or evading the undead? What happens if we find a cure?
Epidemiologists ask pretty similar questions when modeling real-world diseases. "All these things that you can play around with that are just as applicable to an influenza outbreak or a mumps outbreak—like we're seeing in Arkansas right now—as they are to a zombie outbreak," says Tara C. Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University in Ohio (and member of the Zombie Research Society).
So zombies can illustrate how a hypothetical illness might spread under different conditions. "It's difficult sometimes to model diseases that we know," Smith says. "We have all these parameters we have to fill in, and we think we know a lot about each of them, and sometimes we're wrong."
But with zombies, all bets are off. "You can have them spread only by bite, by mosquitoes, by air, you can have them have an incubation period of 30 seconds or five days," Smith says. "You can make up everything, look at how that spreads, and look at how different prevention methods can play a role in mitigating the spread."
A few scholars have done just that. In 2009, University of Ottawa mathematician Robert J. Smith? (yep, the question mark is part of his name) and his students showed that humans would have to strike back quickly and fiercely against the walking dead to avoid "the collapse of society as zombies overtake us all." The class project grew into a chapter in a book about modeling infectious diseases.
Smith? went on to edit a book called Mathematical Modelling of Zombies. One chapter suggests that it's better to buy time by running from a zombie horde than trying to slow it down. "Fleeing for your life should be the first action of any human wishing to survive," the paper's authors note.