Robert Smith? is a professor of mathematics at the university of Ottawa who researches infectious diseases.

In our interview with Smith? we discussed the topic of disease modelling, and how this concept could be applied to the scenario of a Zombie apocalypse. We were also interested in discussing with Smith? who, as mentioned previously, has extensive knowledge of various infectious diseases, what his opinions are concerning a zombie apocalypse - if it is possible, what he believes the "zombie" disease would look like and how he believes it would affect the world.

The InterviewEdit

Interview with Robert Smith?

Interview with Robert Smith?


The interview was conducted by Madeleine Walshaw (MW) and Bobby Ellis (BE) on Friday April 5th 2013.

RS?: Do you want a table for that recorder?

MW: Umm sure that would be great. Thank you.

RS?: This is Bolton (referring to his dog).

BE: So basically we want to design a virus that kind of spreads extremely fast and we're hoping that the infection rate would be about 89%. We’re not sure how the actual math works

RS?: yeah right

BE: and instead of turning them into zombies it kind of turns them into, we call them Ferals, it basically removes sapient thought from their minds. They’re like beasts. And that’s kind of where we’ll rebuild society from there

RS?: So it’s a bit more like the rage virus

BE: kind of yeah. We’re just not entirely sure so we’re going to ask some questions about that. One thing we wanted to ask is if our version of the transfer of an infectious disease would be possible?

RS?: In theory yes, so instead of physiologically turning a human into something that is very aggressive it seems quite possible. You know there are centers in our brains that inhibit us from doing stuff and if you took those out then yeah it would probably stop our inhibitions. It could certainly make us like very aggressive and very intense … yeah something that could attack the brain would do that. Whether it could spread to 90% of the population? That’s a hard one. I mean diseases have been with us forever. You know like since we started there were diseases. They’re always trying to take us out. The fact that they haven’t yet is probably a good indication that there not actually as good as we often think. We often think “oh this disease will wipe us all out”, I mean it could wipe an individual out, it could wipe me out, but it may not wipe every single human out. In fact it’s probably pretty unlikely to. And in a way we’re pretty diverse, especially these days because we interbreed and so on. So the chance you get a mutation that’s immune to some diseases is pretty high. The chance you probably had that way back in the day, we’re all descendent from people who had that, so there just tends to be a lot of ability to fight disease. Not totally though, there are big pandemics that come around every so often. I guess it’s kind of like a power law, the bigger the apocalypse the smaller the chances are, it falls exponentially … in theory maybe.

BE: Yeah, So we weren’t sure how it would be created, like what are the possibilities something like that would be created in a lab? Like a super-virus, something that was engineered or something that was created through an act of evolution.

RS?: Most of these viruses tend to jump from animals, there are so many diseases in animals and then what tends to happen is that there is some mutation that somehow leads to humans and its either because we just catch an airborne disease from animals, we catch the flu form birds all the time, or because something mutates or because we do something. Like there are some theories that the AIDS virus started because people were taking monkey blood to make vaccines out of, so like using plasma from monkeys and putting stuff in it, but then the HIV virus in it changed when we started injecting it into people. So you see in things like that some mutation occurs and something becomes much more lethal. That’s probably more, mostly how science tends to work anyway. It’s very hard to reinvent the wheel, you tend to be taking an existing thing and tweaking it to try and see. So I suppose in a lab it could be like we’re trying to do the same kind of thing, we take an existing disease and then change it somehow.

BE: For like vaccines?

RS?: Mmhmm

BE: How would it most likely be transferred, if it was theoretically possible?

RS?: Ahh yes, so there’s all different kinds of transferring disease. There’s airborne, like with zombies you could bite someone, you could have skin-to-skin contact, you could get it in the water system, through food. There’s so many ways of transferring. Airborne is probably the worst, I mean in terms of if you want maximum spread. Because then you can’t help it, you’re just breathing the air and so on.  But either way that’s very indiscriminate. So sometimes, interestingly there are some diseases that have a particular kind of spread. Like an STD for instance, obviously you’re not just going to breathe that in an STD, but so that brings up all the morality of it. You get people making judgements and associating certain lifestyles with the STD and so that changes the way people react in society and all that. Sometimes stealth diseases happen this way. AIDS foe instance, the STD obviously, it happened very quietly as it had a long latency period but before you know it we have a huge apocalypse on our hands right now, that we’re living in. And we could have stopped it quite easily in the 80’s. We just didn’t because we didn't want to think about it. So there are lots and lots of different ways in for a disease.

BE: Okay, you want to take the next one?

MW: Yeah sure. So we were wondering, because we know you studied a lot of different diseases, we were wondering if you think there’s any sort of disease that you think would sort of resemble the characteristics of a pop culture zombie disease? Or a disease that could create a pop culture type of zombie?

RS?: Yeah I haven’t really seen a human disease that does that so much.  There are some animals ones… I would say the closest zombie one is the fungus. It’s a fungus that takes over ants and it makes them into zombies and it makes them do what the fungus wants, including killing themselves. So it betters the fungus, it allows the fungus to move locations, which of course the fungus can’t do on its own. So that’s pretty wild stuff because it takes over the brain and ruins the brains’ of the ants somehow and makes them do what it wants and stuff, carries fungus spores off cliffs and so on. I don’t think that’s a disease, more the fungus just doing its thing. There are sort of mental disorders that cause this kind of stuff so I mean I guess I’m sort of imagining there could be a disease that could attack the brain in the same sort of way that changes something physiologically. I don’t know of any myself that are sort of that similar… yeah nothing too similar.

MW: So we read a few of your articles and you talk about the concept of disease modelling a lot and we were just wondering if you could explain that to us, because you know we’re arts students…

RS?: Right yeah you know I’m very interested in how mathematics can cross disciplines because I think that’s where it’s very very helpful. So for me it’s like, if you have a biological problem and it could be this – a disease, an outbreak of zombies or an earthquake or you’re trying to model a species in a river, whatever your biological problem is what you want to do with mathematics, is translate it to mathematics. You really translate it to the language of mathematics so that you have some systematic, logical framework. And the reason you want to use mathematics is because math language is very logical and systematic. So then you analyse your model and you come to a conclusion. And the conclusion is absolutely true based on the premise. So your premise might be wrong but your conclusion is true. And that means that you can trust that system of the mathematics. Then you have a biological conclusion and you can compare that to the real world and say “does my answer make sense?” and so on. You might decide it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, then the only possible mistake can be in the translation. So I turned my biological problem into a math problem and maybe I didn’t do that very well. And so then you say “let me tweak that, let me update my model” and so on. You may do this several times but eventually what happens is that you come to a good model, that you’re happy with, that is a representation of reality, but it’s not perfect. It’s like making a map; you don’t want a map to be one-to-one because that’s too big. I don’t want to carry around a real-world size map, right? What I want is a scaled down version of reality. And so your model is exactly that: a scaled down map that you’re trying to use to find some way to sort of see through the darkness and find your way home or whatever. So it’s like by moving over to mathematical space, you get access to some way of thinking logically, of thinking clearly. But from my point of view I’m still trying to solve that biological problem. So mathematical modeling helps me to conceptualize it in a friendly way, in an understandable way. I mean it’s a dense language, mathematics, it has its own syntax and symbols and so on, and people get really scared of it. But I think it’s that translation from biology to mathematics that’s most important. And that’s one way where human being really matter, you can’t just do that on the computer. You have to be able to decide what it is you’re doing. You know if you’re making a map, what am I including, what am I not including? If I want to get home I need to know to turn on the corner, there’s a McDonald’s there, there’s a church here and so on. Those are important, not every blade of grass. And so mathematical modelling is like that. You have to be able to make decisions, make choices, decide what to include and what not to include and so on. I find it a very collaborative process, because you’re always talking to biologists and so on, trying to figure out how it is to make the best model. Once you have the best model, mathematicians go on and analyse them. But it’s that crucial translation in the beginning that is for me the most important and the most interesting.

BE: What are the positive applications for that?

RS?: I guess it allows you to come to a conclusion that you couldn’t get to in the real world. Like if I try to think about “well how will I solve this problem?”, I have to sort of go through the world – I could try this, I could try that, and well you’re testing a lot of things that might be expensive to do, that might be really logistically though to do, and you might spend a lot of time testing it out before you come to an answer. And with mathematics you can actually often test these out and see if they work or not, long before you spend a penny on it. And especially if it doesn’t work, because if you find out “I tried this, mathematics says it’s not going to work” then chances are it’s not going to work in real life either. I mean it might, you might have missed something, but usually it’s useful for ruling things out and that can save you an enormous amount of time and money. And if you’re in the middle of an apocalypse, you need to do this really quickly, right? You can’t spend a long time running clinical trials and finding volunteers, and waiting for these trials. You have to have answers right away.  And you only have partial information; mathematics is very good at that, if you don’t know everything. And in fact if you look at something like swine flu, when that happened, we immediately started doing mathematical models.  We actually came up with really good things about like: “if this gets worse, when do we close schools? Do we shut down cities? What do we do? If we came up with a treatment, with all of these things happening at the side, then what? If we have nothing to do, then what?” you can have a lot of if-thens at once, and then test all of it simultaneously.

MW: Yeah we read your article, where I think you helped two PhD students with a mathematical model of the zombie apocalypse. We read something, it said something like, within four days, a mid-sized city like Ottawa would be overrun. And so that’s how you came to that conclusion.

RS?: Yeah cause you know zombies are fun, but I think what zombies do is that they kind of  illustrates to this person mathematical modelling. It’s like “Here’s a new disease that we have never modelled before. Okay we need to make decisions, and we need to make them maybe, quickly.” So we go through this and in that case we tried lots of things: we tried quarantine, we tried treatment, we tried a pulse of attacks. You know actually, before this started, I thought quarantine would do it, I thought “let’s do quarantine, that’ll stop the problem”, and it totally didn’t. That was a real surprise to me. That’s where I think mathematics can really help. That should have worked, it’s not that I don’t know why it didn’t, I now know why it didn’t, but at the time, I was like “I’m really taken, the quarantine didn’t work”. The mathematics is clear, it showed me why it didn’t work and then allowed me to reason it through the real world and say “oh right it’s hard to catch zombies”, also the people you have to quarantine are not just the zombies themselves, but the people who have been infected but who are not yet zombies, and it turns out those are the crucial group, but you don’t know what they look like. They could look like you or I, and so they are very very hard to identify, so that’s a huge logistic problem. And all this stuff comes up that you wouldn’t have thought of. For me that zombie stuff was explicit there to illustrate how models work. So when the next disease comes along, then you know the first thing you need to do is to do a mathematical model, because mathematics is often at the forefront of all these things. At the forefront of physics, and the forefront of biology and so on because it can move much faster than they can. And I think it’s really, at the end of the day, about predicting the future.

BE: That’s really interesting actually.

MW: So do you believe that, hypothetically, I know that you already said that and I'm getting the idea that you kind of think that the zombie apocalypse might be possible? How do you think that could happen? An airborne disease like you said?

RS?: An actual zombie apocalypse arising probably isn’t possible. But something that resembles it might be. So yes, some mutation of a disease… I mean the thing about diseases is that we have no idea what comes next.

MW: Yeah

RS?: And we sort of we sit in our little bubble, saying: “ahh okay, if there’s another flu, I can cope with that”, but what if there was something that we just don’t know what it looks like. And we may not know for a long time. When the swine flu came we were actually pretty fast at developing a vaccine, and we got it by the October, I guess it came out sort of March-April or so, and that’s incredibly quick for a vaccine development. And yet it was too late. We actually turned out the vaccine, although it was pretty good, but we needed it several months later.  Most of the epidemic had actually passed by the time, and we got lucky because Swine flu wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been, and in fact should have been in a way. It was an airborne virus, that moved very quickly, and with global travel, we can move diseases around very fast now. And so we were lucky. We saved some lives through medical technology. We have respirators now, that we didn’t have in the last pandemic, that allows people to breath that otherwise would have died. But that was just some small portion of live saved, not a huge number. I don’t know what the sort of next apocalyptic disease will be, and that means that I need to be prepared for all possibilities. And what people are doing now, is that they are designing mathematical models for, you know, who knows what kind of disease. Right? Because governments want to sort of stockpile the kind of drugs that might work against something like this. And you don’t want to waste a lot of money stockpiling drugs for something that’s never going to happen, then again if you have nothing, if you haven't thought about it in advanced, then this disease could really do some damage. And so you’re sort of playing this game of sort of trying to predict what’s going on, to have some reserves, but not too much. So it’s a really precarious position to be in, because I don’t know what it’ll look like.  What if the next thing comes along and, I don’t know, takes out our feet and we can’t walk. That’s a huge difference from if it comes out and we can’t breathe and we need respirators and so on. So who knows what’s going to happen. And so it’s very hard to be prepared for that. And yet we have to try to still.

BE: So what would the difference in mortality rates between the urban and the rural, the first world, third world?

RS?: So mortality is really interesting, because if you look at something like a rural population they tend to be very spread out. So it’s hard for diseases to travel. On the other hand, the rural populations are living with animals, which are often how diseases start. Animal conditions are very dirty and so on, and disease tend to transfer there. But cities can be a real crucible. Some diseases just get into an urban center and just spreads like wildfire, because people are living in close proximity and so on. And then if you add in external factors like poverty and lack of access to clean water, and lack of access to infrastructure, that can really like amp up the disease.  On the other hand if you have a disease that’s in the developing world then it takes time to get out sometimes because sometimes there are just so few resources, and people are hardly travelling much. There are lots of diseases that are circulating in just a very small amount of places. They’ve had these outbreaks, killed these people and then gone away again and haven’t made the jump to more populous centers, just because the infrastructure isn’t there yet. Maybe it’s a matter of time or maybe they’ll always be contained there. It’s a bit nerve-racking because you don’t know what’ll happen. If you look at something like West-Nile virus, West-Nile virus they’re pretty sure now, it was one single mosquito that got caught up in the wheel-hump of the plane. And when the wheels came up from the plane, when it landed in New York, the mosquito flew out and bit some birds and the birds got West-Nile virus.   West-Nile virus in Egypt was totally different than West-Nile virus around here because the mosquitos in North America can carry more of the blood and the virus and so on. So now it’s a deadly disease, and it wasn’t before. That’s such a bizarre thing, a plane just took a mosquito across the world and it started a whole new epidemic. In fact in essence, it created a new disease that way. So you’ve got all these wacky things going on. This means location matters, you know, we live in a very interconnected world. Diseases can circulate quietly and then suddenly have a huge outbreak. We send them around a lot.  Spanish flu from 1918 actually wasn’t from Spain at all, it was from Kansas. It was in an army barracks in Kansas, this was in the First World War so the people in the army barracks went out everywhere. The reason it’s called “Spanish Flu” is because Spain wasn’t involved in the war at the time, so they had free media and they were reporting on the disease while everyone else was blocking it out. So it was called the Spanish Flu just because they were actually talking about it, it was actually a U.S disease. At the time unprecedented global travel, i.e. the First World War, people were moving around more than ever before. But we move around way more than that now. We don’t quit go into filthy conditions like the trenches, we tend to go to some tourist destinations or whatever, but still we can move things around very very fast. We moved SARS from Hong-Kong to Toronto very quickly and there was a new outbreak there. So yeah, all these things matter and they matter a lot. Sort of where there is a local spread happening, sort of in rural communities, it maybe moves to an urban center and then it explodes there and then somebody takes it across to another place and it starts again. You get multiple points of starting diseases, at different locations all at once.

BE: Yeah that’s what we figured. Southern California would be a good epicenter for our diseases, that’s what we decided. It’s got a large population.

MW: So we see that you used to do, and you still obviously do, a lot of work on more kind of “serious” diseases. So we were just wondering when you became interested in the idea of zombies and I also read an article you wrote on Bieber fever.

RS?: Yes that’s right, it really started as a student project.  You know, in a disease course I was teaching. And it sort of was just a fun way to illustrate the principles. And then it kind of took off and had a life of its own. There’s lots of interest in zombies, and Bieber fever and so on. I guess what I find is that these fun diseases sort of teach you things that you might not see otherwise or might not be as interesting otherwise. They also open up mathematical modelling to people who are not mathematicians. And that I found really rewarding and really amazing. I got letters from high school kids saying: “wow I love zombies and I read your paper!”. And you’re thinking like “this is university-level mathematics” and yet even high school and, in fact, elementary school students were reading the paper. You’re like: “this is unbelievable, it’s full of equations!” And yet because of the zombies they were really interested to do it. And teacher would write: “thank you so much, my students love math for the first time”. So that was quite amazing to me, and it also shows you principles. Zombies show you how to model a new disease. With Bieber-Fever it was looking at what’s the influence of the media on disease. And we sort of think of the Media as being this thing that sort of stands apart from society and just watches it. But it turns out that it doesn’t, it has a huge impact on the way things work. In fact it has, and continues to have a huge impact on the way diseases spread. The media can really amplify diseases. So Bieber-Fever is a way of looking at that in a much more fun context. Seeing sort of how something that might be very infectious spread in both people spreading it to other people, like saying “oh I love the music of this guy”, or the media also sort of spreading this in the background. And we see these two combinations of things, and means that this disease is almost unstoppable. I was in Africa teaching last year, I was teaching people from all over Africa, it was a Pan-Africa kind of thing. So I was like: “Who knows who Justin Bieber is?” and every hand went up. And you're thinking: “This is pretty amazing: I'm in a jungle in Senegal, teaching people from all over the world, in very rural places often, and they all know who he is.” That’s an amazing power of the media – to spread right across the world now.

MW: So we were wondering what is your favorite movie or TV show or literature or anything that has to deal with zombies.

RS?: Yeah so probably my favorite is “Shawn of the Dead”. Long before I was even into zombies it was fun. But when we were doing the zombie paper, my students watched all the movies and so on, but we kept coming back to that one because as a comedy, it had all the kind of zombie tropes. You know, somewhere in there was everything.  And so you sort of realize how clever too and we kept using it is as a short-hand. We’d be like: “ yeah, yeah, yeah but in In Shawn of The Dead, this happens” and then you’ll be like “oh I need to include that in the model” and so on. So that was very cool. The zombie comedy has risen a bit more in recent years; you know you have “Zombieland” and things like that. It’s a fun sort of fun sub-genre of zombie videos. And you get, you know, the zombie romantic comedy, the Rom-Com zombie – an awesome way to mix things. And I guess that’s what zombies kind of do – they give us a new perspective on existing things through this kind of very imagined disaster. And it’s like in reality, are the dead going to rise up? No way. Right? That’s just kind of ridiculous and not possible. And it’s funny. Zombie movies kind of start with that, and then they kind of forget about it. They’re like: “Okay we’ve got an apocalypse happening, there’s staggering beasts coming after me, I’ve got to get away from it.” Absolutely, but they sort of forget about the fact that the dead can come back to life.  Like that’s a really huge, mind-boggling idea.  And actually would be really terrifying – like how do you stop something like that? If the dead can come back alive, we have no chance. So I find actually the dead coming back really interesting. And then you sort of see things like “28 days later” that try to be like: “well that’s not happening, the dead are not actually coming back to life, we have a virus”. They never mention the word “zombies” in the film.  But still, we all know that they are.  You know, I find zombies so interesting. Like my parents, they’ve never seen a zombie movie, they never will but they know what zombies are.  Like I think that’s pretty cool. This has sort of permeated the culture in a very powerful way.

BE: We’ve studied the beginnings of the first movies about it and how the idea changed from a voodoo curse more to the fungus we were talking about before.

RS?: Yeah that’s right. George Romero really had this vision of what he wanted to do and the idea just got very very popular.

BE: So what do you think is the most realistic of all the, at least of the newer, media for zombies? Like we didn’t really think the “Walking Dead” was too realistic for the actual spread of it or the reactions to the virus.

RS?: It’s probably “28 days later” because I guess that’s really what they’re going for. And I guess it’s interesting that they go for the really intense, kind of visceral zombies that are coming at you in high speed rather than the very slow kind of shambling dead. I guess in a way a lot of the George Ramero-sort of-inspired-zombies are comedy in the end, even if they’re horror, it’s sort of funny. Because an individual zombie seems so like easy to deal with. This is a very slow moving creature that is very visible, I know what it looks like, all I have to do is shoot it or hit it in the head, do something very simple and that should take care of it. And if that was one zombie, I’d be totally fine. Me versus one zombie I'm going to win every time. I'm not a sort of psychopathic killer, I'm just some guy. I could pick up a tree branch or whatever and take out a zombie. So that seems very comforting. And then you realize “sure but what if you add a thousand of them, and they don’t need to sleep and they don’t need to eat and they don’t need to do all the things we do”. And then suddenly a thousand of you versus a thousand of them is not so good a prospect. Even that, well there’s another thousand coming and they just keep coming at you. And that to me is a really interesting part of zombies, these things seem so laughable and seem so sort of minor, you’re like “well I’ll just take care of that” and yet it’s so strong. And that’s very similar to diseases in some ways. We sort of have this sense of how we’ll just come up with some vaccine and science will take care of it or whatever. And you know, if it’s sort of small enough I guess that’s true but for any major outbreak like that it’s not going to be possible, the thing just keeps coming at you. I find zombies very primal in a way, it’s like they represent fears that we have as humans. It’s like what do I fear as a Human? Well I fear being eaten by a predator. Even as unlikely as that is to happen in modern society, that’s obviously hardwired into all of our DNA. We all survived being eaten by predators back in the day, so that’s there. Being killed by a disease, right, which you know we sadly do live with. That’s a very random kind of thing that’s just going to happen to you and well it’s kind of like you can be fooled into thinking you can do something about it. It’s like if I act just so, and so for with an STD I don’t do these practises,  if it’s for some airborne disease I don’t live in certain places, I live with the illusion that I won’t get the disease because I'm a moral person or whatever it is and that creates this kind of two-tiered layer of being. Zombies have exactly the same kind of thing. If I'm a good enough shot, if I'm a survivalist or whatever- Ill survive where others won’t. And in a way you’ve already lost at that point, because it’s sort of been this everyone-for-themselves idea, which is not conducive to surviving an apocalypse, whether it’s made-up zombies or a real disease. It’s together where we’re strong, individually we’re not. I think it’s no coincidence that every zombie movie takes out society right at the start. You open with either society is falling, or it’s already fallen. Now what? The question “now what?” is like it’s too late actually; we’ve lost the biggest defense we have against zombies, which is civilization.

BE: So why do you think they made the switch from the slower zombies to the now new fast ones?

RS?: I think it’s just more exciting as a film. It’s interesting from a disease perspective, like a fast disease like Ebola you know is actually not nearly as effective as a slow disease like HIV is. HIV is extremely effective, in large part because you don’t see it coming and it’s kind of too late by the time you realise it. It has a ten year latency period, you know so it’s just this very quiet disease spreading around and then before you know it, you have a global epidemic on your hands. Whereas Ebola burns itself out too quick. It’s like you have to deal with Ebola, because it’s happening so quick. So same thing with the fast zombie, I think it’s like if you saw one of those on the street you’d be calling in the army straight away. But if there’s some guy shambling around, you know like moving very slowly, it doesn’t seem like a threat. We’d probably be like “oh it’s some homeless guy” and we’d pay no attention because we’re not used to paying attention to homeless people. So that’s a way in for something like a slow-moving zombie. I find both things interesting. It’s like if a fast-moving zombie is coming at me, it’s absolutely terrifying. So of course that makes for good movies. And then the slow-moving zombie, I guess that’s bigger things to say about civilization, so that’s interesting too.

BE: What introduced you to zombies? Like why did you originally choose it? I know you talked about the popularity of it, but like who showed it to you?

RS?: So it was really my students. You know I liked zombies well enough before doing this. My students were doing math homework in the class, I’m not sure if it was my class or another class, but they were doing math homework in front of the TV and there was a zombie movie on. One guy said “that looks like way more fun than this”, you know it was sort of immediately, zombies would beat math any day. So then he had an idea for doing this model, I said to the students: make a mathematical model of a disease and you can do any disease you want. So the idea being engage with it, find out what interests you, if you want to do something standard, fine, if you want to do something interesting, fine. And they said: how about zombies? And I was like: “this is brilliant, absolutely because you’re modelling a new disease; you’re doing exactly what is required in the class”. And later they told they thought I would shoot it down. They thought “this will never fly”. But I was a science fiction fan from way back, so I guess I was right there ready for something like zombies to happen and then kind of picked up that and ran with it. The great thing with zombies is that the jokes just write themselves, like you can always have fun with it and I think that’s a real part of the appeal too. So I guess that just kind of got me going with this idea of zombies, you can just have fun. When we first did the paper and we sent it off, I just thought that this is so much fun for me; it will amuse me and no one else. Like it’s fun to have a line on my CV that says I’ve once published a paper on zombies, and you know, that’ll make me laugh and that’s it. And then I sent it off to this journal and, they were just looking for papers, I had already written another, serious one I think it was “The spread of HIV in urban and rural populations” or something and then I just emailed them and said “hey do you have room for another one? I have this wacky thing”. And they were like “actually we do, but we have to go to press in three days, so you have three days to do this”. So I had to convert this student paper into an academic paper, so I scrambled to do this, wrote this thing, threw in jokes and then thought nothing of it. And then they wrote back very seriously saying: “The committee has considered your submission and we find it interesting and the math seems sound and by the way this is the first ever model of the zombie apocalypse.” Very funny but very prefaced. And then when it came out everybody got very excited and sort of now I can see why, but at the time I was really taken aback that other people would share my kind of quirky sense of humour.

BE: The inner-nerd in all of us I suppose?

RS?: Yeah and I think the time was right too for zombies. I think we got it at just the right time because I think “Zombieland” came out only shortly afterwards and that was sort of a big thing. There have been a lot of analogies drawn between the rise of zombie movies and times of war. Like in the Vietnam era there were all those Ramero movies happening and then it really went quite. Like in the 90’s, when we really weren’t at war, there were no zombie movies; it was sort of vampires that were bigger. And now there’s been a lot of war for a long time, in Iraq and Afghanistan and so on, so zombie movies are more popular than ever. And I don’t know if the analogy completely holds, but it’s an interesting one. And I think zombies too, they really speak to the zeitgeist of today, sort of you know like there’s a way in which they kind of represent the terrorist threat. They are this sort of decentralized thing, waiting to take us down, that sort of wants to destroy society. That’s sort of its only goal. So that’s a scary thing, if you’re living and enjoying society, you know because it really speaks to those both those primal sorts of things I said before but also the sort of current fear we have that sows the seeds for why people are so interested I zombies.

BE: I think that’s pretty great actually

MW: Yeah

BE: Thanks a lot.

MW: Yeah thank you so much!

RS?: Great! You’re very welcome.


Going into the interview with Professor Robert Smith? we came up with two separate methods of questioning. We devised a few questions to directly relate to our project on this wiki, and we found a way to delve into his actual work on disease modelling and zombies.

One point he made that we found very interesting, on whether zombies could be possible or not, was the fungal invasion of ants. A form of fungus takes over a series of ants, which we believe could be replaced by humans if the conditions were right, and they basically become automatons to the will of the fungus. This method of zombification is similar to what we saw in the White Zombie film in class.

Regarding our scenario, he believed it was possible that an infection could rapidly spread through out the world, however our mortality rates might not be so easily accomplished. It would be more likely to spread if it were airborne, and as we determined in class, the global community would transfer the virus very quickly. An interesting note is that the rural areas would be far less devasted by such a disease. Degraded or lacking infrastructure such as roads, railways, or airports would force the virus to move much more slowly than in the urban centers.

The most important aspect of Professor Smith?'s interview was the use of mathematics to postulate an idea and decide whether it is possible using the irrefutable logic of math. Basically take a formula, add a question, do the math, and you find out whether it works or not. This is useful in predicting how a possible or real virus will spread, what measures need to be taken to counteract it, and whether a vaccine will be useful within a set time frame.

Due to the popularity of zombies in today's society, Professor Smith? unexpectedly found that adding the fun element that is zombie culture to the hard sciences and mathematics of acedemia resulted in increased enthusiasm from his students where they were typically bored before.The applications can go beyond math or biology however, we think that one could use a popular topic such as zombie culture to present ideas or concepts, that might be widely ignored, to a larger and more open audience.