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Scholars put braaaaains together to thwart zombies

Candidates queue to audition for the job of "Zombie" outside the London Bridge Experience visitor attraction in London July 28, 2009. The successful candidate will have the role of scarring visitors in the tombs underneath the bridge.


Science is still struggling with how to get the jump on swine flu, but Canadians can take heart that a group of Ottawa mathematicians have found the key to beating a more virulent, if only cinematic, threat.

A zombie outbreak - the kind that always confounds authorities in movies - can be successfully overcome through "quick, aggressive attacks" on the undead, scholars at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University have concluded.

"While aggressive quarantine may contain the epidemic, or a cure may lead to the co-existence of humans and zombies, the most effective way to contain the rise of the undead is to hit hard and hit often," the mathematicians say in a playful research paper, When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak Of Zombie Infection, which is being published as part of a book due out later this year from Nova Science Publishers.

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Those behind the paper include students as well as assistant University of Ottawa math professor Robert J. Smith, who receives support from a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant and the Ontario Early Researcher Award program.

The work is not a case of math geeks just cracking jokes. It's a display of the rigorous math, statistics and models used to analyze infection rates of real-life diseases and to demonstrate how a virus spreads through a population.

Ioan Hudea, a Carleton student who helped author the zombie paper, said this mathematical modelling is used to help authorities prepare for outbreaks.

"You're using this sort of model to predict the outcome of epidemics and know how to vaccinate people, how much vaccine is needed and how to assemble a vaccination plan."

One problem the researchers had in modelling zombie attacks is that popular culture has yielded two different types of undead, the second of which can potentially infect people faster. The slow-moving, mindless variety was made famous by the classic 1968 thriller Night of the Living Dead , while the smarter, faster and more independent type have cropped up in more recent films such as 28 Days Later and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead .

In the end, the faster, brainier zombies didn't make the cut when it came to modelling.

The mathematicians considered a scenario in which there was rapid "zombification" after people were bitten by undead creatures, and another in which the incubation period was 24 hours. Both ended badly for the human race. "In this [second]case, the zombies take over, but it takes approximately twice as long."

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They considered quarantining the zombies where possible. This didn't avert catastrophe either, even if captured zombies were destroyed.

Finally, they studied the impact of a cure that restored the humanity of the infected, but didn't grant people immunity. In this case, some humans survived, but only in low numbers.

The only solution that worked was rapid destruction of zombies - the same lesson conveyed by Hollywood.

"As seen in the movies, it is imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly, or else we are all in a great deal of trouble," the mathematicians said.

The key difference in modelling zombies, as opposed to real infectious diseases, is that the dead can return to life, the mathematicians noted. "Clearly, this is an unlikely scenario if taken literally, but possible real-life applications may include allegiance to political parties or diseases with a dormant infection."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More


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