Ottawa students pit mathematics against zombie apocalypse

Two Carleton graduate students have been recognized around the world for a fascinating research project they undertook. Read all about Ioan Hudea’s and Philip Munz’s accomplishments in the Globe and Mail, National Post and BBC News.

Globe and Mail
Scholars put braaaaains together to thwart zombies
By Steven Chase

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.

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.”

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.”

National Post
Experts add up toll of zombie outbreak – National Post
Saturday August 15th, 2009
By David Wylie, Canwest News

A team of Canadian mathematicians have been picking their large, delectable brains over whether humankind could survive a zombie apocalypse.

Their conclusion?

“An outbreak of zombies infecting humans is likely to be disastrous, unless extremely aggressive tactics are employed against the undead,” says the paper, titled When Zombies Attack! Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection.

“Thus, if zombies arrive, we must act quickly and decisively to eradicate them before they eradicate us.”

Of course, the researchers — all mathematics students from Carleton University and the University of Ottawa — took their undead, flesh-eating topic with a large pinch of salt.

“If you look at it in a more realistic way, zombies are about the same as any other major infectious disease — they get out and we try to eliminate them,” said Joe Imad, a University of Ottawa mathematics student and one of the paper’s coauthors.

“Modelling zombies would be the same as modelling swine flu, with some differences for sure, but it is much more interesting to read.”

Mr. Imad, Philip Munz, Ioan Hudea and Robert J. Smith researched zombies for several months. They used mathematical equations to map several types of outbreak, including a basic model where everyone becomes infected, a scenario where the outbreak is quarantined and a situation where a cure is developed.

They defined zombies as “a reanimated human corpse that feeds on living human flesh.”

The study was published as part of a book titled Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress. It’s sandwiched between chapter three, about drug treatment of patients with both tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, and chapter five, the mathematical modelling of the epidemiology of malaria.

The paper’s bibliography included such sources as Compartmental Models in Epidemiology and the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead.

As outlandish as the subject may seem, the researchers say there is a real-life application.

“This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first mathematical analysis of an outbreak of zombie infection,” the paper says. “While the scenarios considered are obviously not realistic, it is nevertheless instructive to develop mathematical models for an unusual outbreak. This demonstrates the flexibility of mathematical modelling and shows how modelling can respond to a wide variety of challenges in ‘biology.’”

Mr. Imad said he and his colleagues received a “pretty good” grade on the project.

 

BBC News
Science ponders ‘zombie attack’
By Pallab Ghosh , Science correspondent

There has been a revival of the zombie film in recent years.

If zombies actually existed, an attack by them would lead to the collapse of civilisation unless dealt with quickly and aggressively.

That is the conclusion of a mathematical exercise carried out by researchers in Canada.

They say only frequent counter-attacks with increasing force would eradicate the fictional creatures.

The scientific paper is published in a book – Infectious Diseases Modelling Research Progress.

In books, films, video games and folklore, zombies are undead creatures, able to turn the living into other zombies with a bite.

But there is a serious side to the work.

In some respects, a zombie “plague” resembles a lethal, rapidly spreading infection. The researchers say the exercise could help scientists model the spread of unfamiliar diseases through human populations.

My understanding of zombie biology is that if you manage to decapitate a zombie then it’s dead forever.

In their study, the researchers from the University of Ottawa and Carleton University (also in Ottawa) posed a question: If there was to be a battle between zombies and the living, who would win?

Professor Robert Smith? (the question mark is part of his surname and not a typographical mistake) and colleagues wrote: “We model a zombie attack using biological assumptions based on popular zombie movies.

“We introduce a basic model for zombie infection and illustrate the outcome with numerical solutions.”

To give the living a fighting chance, the researchers chose “classic” slow-moving zombies as our opponents rather than the nimble, intelligent creatures portrayed in some recent films.

“While we are trying to be as broad as possible in modelling zombies – especially as there are many variables – we have decided not to consider these individuals,” the researchers said.

Back for good?

Even so, their analysis revealed that a strategy of capturing or curing the zombies would only put off the inevitable.

In their scientific paper, the authors conclude that humanity’s only hope is to “hit them [the undead] hard and hit them often”.

They added: “It’s imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly or else… we are all in a great deal of trouble.”

According to the researchers, the key difference between the zombies and the spread of real infections is that “zombies can come back to life”.

Professor Neil Ferguson, who is one of the UK government’s chief advisers on controlling the spread of swine flu, said the study did have parallels with some infectious diseases.

“None of them actually cause large-scale death or disease, but certainly there are some fungal infections which are difficult to eradicate,” said Professor Ferguson, from Imperial College London.

“There are some viral infections – simple diseases like chicken pox have survived in very small communities. If you get it when you are very young, the virus stays with you and can re-occur as shingles, triggering a new chicken pox epidemic.”

Professor Smith? told BBC News: “When you try to model an unfamiliar disease, you try to find out what’s happening, try to approximate it. You then refine it, go back and try again.”

“We refined the model again and again to say… here’s how you would tackle an unfamiliar disease.”

Professor Ferguson went on to joke: “The paper considers something that many of us have worried about – particularly in our younger days – of what would be a feasible way of tackling an outbreak of a rapidly spreading zombie infection.

“My understanding of zombie biology is that if you manage to decapitate a zombie then it’s dead forever. So perhaps they are being a little over-pessimistic when they conclude that zombies might take over a city in three or four days.”