Students Model Zombie Attack

Canadian researchers use mathematical principles to map the spread of a Zombie virus.
August 21, 2009

Historically, zombie attacks have been the dominion of science-fiction fanatics and Hollywood producers, not scholars. But in a paper scheduled to be published this year, three Canadian graduate students expose the popular sci-fi trope to some long-awaited academic scrutiny.

For the paper, set to be included in the book Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress, Philip Munz and Ioan Hudea of Carleton University, in Ottawa, and Joe Imad, of University of Ottawa, used advanced mathematical modeling to examine the chances of mankind surviving a typical zombie epidemic.

Munz said he conceived the study last fall as a term project, and recruited classmates Hudea and Imad (the two universities share a math program) before pitching the idea to assistant professor Robert J. Smith? -- who, fortuitously, is a fan of zombie cinema (and whose taste for the unconventional may be evident in his decision to legally add a question mark to his last name).

“It kind of came as a crazy idea on my part while doing math homework with a movie on in the background,” Munz said.

That movie was Shaun of the Dead -- a parody of the 1978 cult classic Dawn of the Dead and of zombie films in general. One of the early challenges for Munz and his fellow researchers was to decide exactly which variation on the zombie to choose. They eschewed the fast-moving, quick-witted scourges of recent hits 28 Days Later and I Am Legend in favor of the “classical pop-culture zombie: slow-moving, cannibalistic, and undead.”

In order to meet standards of academic rigor, the students needed to account for variables that many zombie flicks merely imply or gloss over. For example, they needed to factor in that zombies only crave the flesh of non-zombie humans. They also needed to consider the timescale of the attack in order to account for births and “background” deaths in the human population.

In the end, the authors conclude that unless “extremely aggressive” countermeasures are taken promptly after an outbreak, little could be done to prevent zombies from transforming the human race. Two popular solutions -- quarantine and the discovery of a cure -- are unlikely to stem a zombie uprising, the researchers say, since an effective quarantine would require an unlikely level of human organization and infrastructure, and a treatment would leave patients susceptible to re-infection.

Smith? gave the students high marks and helped them get the paper published in Infectious Diseases and Modelling Progress, Munz said, where it is slated to appear between an article about tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS co-infection and one modeling the epidemiology of malaria.

“You look at all these hot and heavy chapter titles and then you’re like, ‘Zombies?,’ ” said Munz. “It’s like, one of these things is not like the other.”

But as silly as studying a hypothetical zombie attack might seem, Munz said the project required the same considerations and rigorous mathematics as scientists are currently using to model the spread of the H1N1 flu virus.

“The principles that are illustrated in this paper -- they could be used to fight real world disease. You first want to find out the biology of the people you’re studying, the method of transmission,” he said.

The paper’s wonkiness and dubious applicability has not kept it from generating interest. Munz said he has received a number of e-mails from zombie aficionados who wish to discuss and sometimes challenge the findings. He has even been contacted by an amateur filmmaker looking to pick his brain on the implications of a zombie attack. He said a follow-up paper exploring additional scenarios with new mathematical models is not out of the question.


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