Researchers and news analysts use mathematical models to study everything from meteorology to athletic records. But did you know that a firm grasp of college math could get you through a zombie apocalypse?
It's true. At least if you trust Robert Smith? — a University of Ottawa mathematics professor, whose many eccentricities include spelling his name with a question mark and mapping epidemiological models on popular sci-fi phenomena. His upcoming book, Mathematical Modeling of Zombies, will provide the reader with a comprehensive analytical tool kit capable of anticipating the undead horde's every move and development.
Its tongue-in-cheek subject notwithstanding, the work will hopefully illuminate the fundamental principles of mathematical analysis and theoretical epidemiology for a non-academic readership. This way, the public will be encouraged to explore themselves the underpinnings of virology, pandemics, and disease transmission.
"Unlike most popular monsters, zombies are inherently biological in nature," Mat Mogk, founder of the Zombie Research Society, told LiveScience. "They don't fly or live forever, so you can apply real-world biological models to them."
The book, which is slated for publication in 2014 by the University of Ottawa Press, translates the imaginary zombie apocalypse into the formal equation (bN)(S/N)Z = bSZ — a volatile model that reflects the limited constants available to analysts trying to formulate predictions about the cannibalistic onslaught.
"Usually, the dead aren't a dynamic variable," Smith explained. "And people don't try to kill the people who have an infection," said Mogk.
In addition, zombification is usually depicted as an instant transformation, making the incubation period virtually nil. This, together with the common absence of treatment, indicates a statistical event marked by sudden, drastic shifts rather than gradual developments.
"Because it only takes one zombie to overtake a city, neither quarantine nor a slower disease progression could stop the Zombie Apocalypse - only delay it," Smith said.
Instead, Smith advocates frequent, explosive attacks that gradually escalate in intensity. This tactic, which is based on a relatively recent mathematical technique called "impulsive differential equations," is supposedly the only one that will eventually halt the spread of the zombie virus.
Beyond educating the public in the basics of disease control and epidemiology, Smith believes that his work may also promote an interest in mathematics among students. "Teachers say it's the first time they've gotten their kids interested in math," he said.