a vexation of zombies

VampJenLuc The next best thing to a Christmas feast has to be holiday leftovers, and the same is true at the cocktail party. In preparation for an exciting new year of cool science, I've been cleaning out my overstuffed fodder file. Out with the old, and in with the new — and for some reason, I've got a bunch of random items clipped relating to zombie science, even though I''ve blogged about this topic before, as has co-blogger Diandra. But can you ever have enough zombie science? Zombies were all the rage in 2009 — there's even a zombie-centric chapter in my forthcoming book, The Calculus Diaries, along with a special appendix: "Calculus of the Living Dead."

It's also been a little over a year since I became director of the National Academy of Science's Science and Entertainment Exchange. It's a demanding job, and really cuts into blogging time — although the Exchange now how its own blog, The X-Change Files — but I think we've done good work in our first year, and will continue to do so in 2010. Case in point: In October, just in time for Halloween, the Exchange organized its first screening and panel discussion, featuring the godfather of zombie films himself, George Romero. Romero graciously allowed us to screen his new film, Survival of the Dead, and sat on a panel afterward with two scientists who've applied their expertise to the study of zombies: Harvard University psychiatrist Steven Schlozman, and University of Ottawa epidemiologist Robert Smith?. Moderating the discussion was none other than Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z.  The panelists received "trophies" of bloody hands in thanks — hey, it was Halloween people, and judging from this photo, they were all thrilled (left to right: Max Brooks, George Romero, Robert Smith?, and Steven Schlozman).Zombie1

Schlozman gained a bit of attention in the blogosphere when he volunteered to give a talk on "Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency Syndrome, or ANSD — his fictional version of the zombie "disease," outlined in a fake medical journal article featuring one living author, three "deceased" authors, and one author described as "humanoid infected."

Schlozman shared the mysteries of the zombie brain with the rapt audience, most of whom were from the entertainment industry and had no idea there could be actual science relevant to zombies. For instance, zombies clearly have some frontal lobe damage. That's the part of the brain that lets us reason out abstract problems, and also helps us control our impulses. Zombies have very poor impulse control: they want tasty brains, and more brains after that. In fact, Schlozman argues that zombies are driven by the basest of emotions, like rage, which are controlled by the amygdala. The anterior cingulate cortex helps modulate extreme anger or fear or lust (for brains!), so it's safe to say zombies have very little functionality left in that critical region.

How about that lurching, drooling walk typically exhibited by zombies? That's a sign of damage to the cerebellum (balance) and basal ganglia (coordinated movement); in fact, Schlozman points to a description at the National Institutes of Health website that describes people suffering from degeneration in the cerebellum as exhibiting "a wide-legged, unsteady lurching walk, usually accompanied by a back and forth tremor in the trunk of the body." Sounds like the zombie gait to me.  As for always being hungry for brains, well, clearly there's also a malfunctioning ventromedial hypothalamus, which is what tells us when we've eaten enough and signals to our body that we are "full." When that doesn't work, a person can eat and eat and eat and eat but will never feel full.

And finally, a UCLA cognitive neuroscientist named Matthew Lieberman took a page from Schlozman's book and mused on whether zombies exhibit a neurological disorder called "blindsight":

"Blindsight individuals have damage to visual cortical areas associated with conscious perception of the world, but the damage is limited to a region that corresponds to a particular spatial extent in their perception. IN other words, there is a particular part of the visual field that does not give rise to conscious experience and if an object is placed in that part of the vision field, the patient will not report seeing the object…. [B]lindsight patients can guess quite accurately which of two objects is in their blind spot despite a lack of conscious experience… Thus, … blindsight patients appear to be partial zombies in that they have no reflective awareness of what is in this part of space and yet they show a preserved ability to function like those who have the awareness."

As for Smith?, he made a splash with a paper co-written with his students, "When Zombies Attack," this summer, which adapted common epidemiological models used to chart the spread of disease to analyze a fictional zombie "outbreak." Diandra's take is here, but tongue-in-cheek though the paper was, it still made The New York Times Magazine's annual list of the "Year in Ideas." That's because Smith?'s jokey analysis has a serious real-world purpose: to better understand certain kinds of "slow moving" diseases that ravage developing countries in particular. In fact, in November Smith? emailed me about his latest paper in which he argues that we can spend our way out of the AIDS epidemic, "but only if we act immediately" — the opposite conclusion to the conventional thinking, which recommends gradual spending over 15-20 years. Smith? recommends an aggressive five-year program of $60 billion; his models show that the gradual approach will most likely fail, given how HIV/AIDS spreads so rapidly through travel and migration. (His paper on this appeared in the open-access journal BMC Public Health.)

The film Zombieland's entire premise is that zombies are the result of an especially virulent form of human adapted mad cow disease. That was the subject of University of California, San Francisco's Stanley Prusiner's Nobel Prize-winning work on prions — simple proteins that fold up in such a way that it becomes unusually stable and strong. This sounds like it would be a good thing, except that prions cause normal molecules of the same type of protein to fold up the same way, and this in turn can form amyloid plaque, which disrupts the central nervous system — and gradually destroys it. Prions are the cause of such diseases as kuru, Alzheimer's, mad cow disease, and Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (CJD). The process, thus far, is irreversible, and always fatal. Prusiner endured quite a lot of skepticism and outright hostility when he first proposed the existence of prions, but now they've become so much a part of the scientific landscape, they were featured as a plotline in a season of the hit TV series 24. (Prions actually make bad bioweapons, but are no less deadly all on their own.)

Zombieland Trailer #2Awesome video clips here

That's the sort of premise that makes a zombie outbreak actually seem believable. So we might just need Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide at some point in the future. Just before Halloween, the University of Florida went the extra mile and produced a handy emergency chart instructing students on what to do in case of a zombie attack. Zombieattacksign Human Resources will naturally terminate any employee's salary the moment said employee becomes a zombie, but other preparations include installing easily barricaded doors in offices, making sure staff are well-armed with both short and long-range weapons, and encouraging staff to work from home (telecommuting) to help stem the spread of the outbreak. There's even a handy form to fill out, reporting your "kills."

That said, the best strategy might involve going to the mall, according to a September paper by an Italian physicist named Davide Cassi. It was published in Physical Review E, and while it didn't specifically focus on zombies, it studied things that move like zombies: particles flowing through a turbulent fluid, for example, or the unpredictable behavior of the stock market. These sorts of systems are known as random walks, and it's also applicable to predator/prey models. Zombies qualify as "predatory random walkers": organisms that stumble around without obvious purpose and destroy any human that gets in their way. Per the press release:

"[Cassi] looked at how long an entity hiding in a complex structure could survive if being pursued by predatory random walkers…. [He] found that the likelihood of survival when threatened by predatory random walkers is closely related to how complex the prey's hideout is. The more twists and turns, the safer you'll be. In structures that are highly complex and irregular, the chances of the predator coming into contact with its target shrinks down to almost zero."

So that means that being trapped in a mall, like in Dawn of the Dead, vastly improves your chances of survival compared to being trapped in a farmhouse, a la Night of the Living Dead. And forget about Pacific Playland, the site of the final battle in Zombieland. Sure, it's probably complex enough, but if you're going to turn on all the flashing lights, you're pretty much defeating the purpose.

The latest trend is pitting zombies against other entities besides humans. At Le Flash 2009 — the opening event of the Atlanta Celebrates Photography festival — an assistant professor of digital media at Georgia Tech named Carl DiSalvo collaborated with David Holstius on a work called "We Are Survival Machines" that pitted zombies versus robots. Apparently it was "a pulsating Cinemax-inspired immersive installation" that used "actors, academic robots and cutting-edge Gigapan technology to emulate the rish and, at times, gross-out traditions of both zombie and robot films." Jen-Luc Piquant has her money on the robots; they don't have any delicious brains for the zombies to devour and can essentially wait out the zombies.

Ah, but what about vampires? Could they survive a zombie apocalypse? There have been numerous studies over the years exploring vampiric population dynamics and predator/prey relationships. The most recent is by mathematician Dino Sejdinovic, who adapted earlier models to add variables that account for the vampire death rate, whether it be by stake, decapitation, prolonged exposure to sunlight, sire, or whatever. And ecology grad student Brian Thomas (Stanford University) wrote an amusing yet educational treatise that studies the fictional California town of Sunnydale (yes he is a Buffy fan). He found that a town with a population of 36,000 should be able to sustain roughly 18 vampires, extrapolating that out to estimate there should be a global vampire population of around 3.25 million.

What happens if the vampire population runs rampant and humans go extinct, thereby depriving the creatures of their primary food source? That was a question Giles once asked Spike on Buffy the Vampire the Slayer: apparently vampires who don't feed become living skeletons or something. The series never explored the topic further, but a new horror film due out next year does just that: Daybreakers. All hell breaks loose when the vampire population is on the brink of starvation. One assumes some similar fate would befall zombies deprived of tasty brains.

Of course, Thomas' paper assumes that vampires are at the top of the food chain. Southern Fried Science took things one step further and pitted the Undead vs the Undead: zombies versus vampires. They adapted the models used by Smith?, in which all but one scenario resulted in the annihilation of the human race (kill 'em all and kill 'em fast, or the "Zombieland" strategy). Their conclusion: zombies would eventually rule the earth unless vampires and humans joined forces. To wit: "Vampires can only survive if humans also survive, and the vampire population is so small as to have no effect on human survival. Vampires are helpless to alter their fate unless they join forces with their living brethren for an all out zombie-human-vampire-rumble."

Clearly, scientists are not yet done exploring the science relating to zombies, or vampires, or (one assumes) werewolves and other mythological creatures. Smith? is doing his bit to encourage the trend by putting together a collection of essays, "Academics on Zombies." "What I really want are insightful essays that involve zombies in some fashion," not necessarily academic papers, he says. Among the included topics: a cancer researcher's perspective on the zombie conversion process; gender studies of the zombie species; a library science analysis of how to locate essential information during a zombie attack; and zombies as a biological swarm.

Interested? Check out the call for ideas. We all await your zombie wisdom. (Be sure to follow Wondermark's useful tips on the correct way to refer to groups of supernatural creatures: "The Stoakes-Whibley Natural Index of Supernatural Collective Nouns." So the next time you encounter a zombie horde, you can accurately describe it as a "vexation.")

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