Freeze, Fight, Flight, or Thought: Why Zombies Make Great Maths Teachers

The Zombie plague is spreading – and it’s a good thing

This morning’s visit to the departmental post boxes was unusually rewarding, as mine had a zombie in it.  Well, to be accurate, it had a zombie in it again.  It’s only a couple of weeks since I picked up my copy of Mathematical Modelling of Zombies (which is excellent, by the way).  I was expecting that, as I’d ordered it, but this morning’s zombie delivery was a pleasant surprise, and it came printed on the front cover of May’s edition of the Institute of Physics monthly magazine, Physics World.  The brain-munching monster in question was evidently trying to claw its way in (or possibly out) through some sort of frosted glass panel, while simultaneously advertising an article on ‘Zombie physics – When statistical analysis meets the undead’.


An image from ‘Zombie-town USA’ by Alex Alemi & Matt Bierbaum.  The interactive version is at . Alemi & Bierbaum’s paper on the model is available at

All the usual suspects are there, including the Patient Zero of mathematical and academic zombie infection, Robert Smith?.  This story focused on the work of Alex Alemi and Matt Bierbaum, a couple of Cornell University graduate students who decided to apply some specialised techniques of statistical modelling from (among other places) condensed matter physics to the spread of a zombie contagion.  Obviously I was happy to see my favourite pop culture ghouls in the hallowed pages of Physics World, in addition to all the other odd places they popped up recently (‘Theories of International Politics and Zombies‘ and ‘Braaaiiinnnsss!: From Academics to Zombies‘ being a couple of my recent favourites).  But it set me wondering – again – what it is about zombies that makes them simultaneously unlikely and perfect as topics of academic discussion, and in so many different fields?

Meeting the audience where they are

I think this might be a clue:-

“Zombies, despite their insatiable thirst for brains, have an undeniable appeal to a wide audience …  They’ve also become a great way to showcase the statistical and mathematical tools of epidemiology. … They lure in the curious … [&] are an accessible way to talk mathematically about the spread of infectious disease.”

Ornes, Stephen. (2016). Zombie physics. Physics World, May 2016

As Smith? himself says, adding zombies to the mix helps to engage audiences who wouldn’t usually take an interest in anything that smacked too much of mathematics: “Now we’ve got people reading math papers with equations in them – people who would never normally read such a thing. … You add zombies, and suddenly it’s interesting.”

So it’s partly a matter of familiarity.  The popularity of stories such World War Z and The Walking Dead means that the first impression given by an article with a title like “Zombie Physics” is likely to be something along the lines of “Zombies?  I like zombies!  So have these physicists made a real zombie then?  Must find out…”  A title like “Statistical mechanics applied to infectious disease transmission” on the other hand, has more of a niche appeal, mainly to those who already know what statistical mechanics is, why it might have applications to disease, and (perhaps most importantly) feel confident that they’ll be able to wade through an article with ‘statistics’ in the title without developing acute anxiety, hives, and three or four extra limbs in the process.

It’s all about the brains

This is where the real brains enter the story.  A lot of people get a bit twitchy about maths and science, to say the least.  The subject names themselves can induce fear.  This is bad in at least two ways; no sensible animal – humans included – keeps returning to places or things which have caused it pain or fear.  Evolutionary responses to threats with millions of years of development behind them kick in, and bad experiences with maths and science can put people off of having anything to do those subjects in future; the ‘flight’ part of the ‘fight or flight’ reaction.  But if flight isn’t possible, and the scary topic proves unavoidable, a different threat response might take over, such as staying very still and hoping it all just goes away.  I did my share of rabbit-in-the-headlights impersonations while staring fixedly at physics problem sheets in the mid-1980s, so I know the feeling very well.  But whether the threat response is avoidance, shutdown or anger, it’s bad news for anyone who actually needs to learn stuff involving logic, because the part of the brain that deals with physical threats tends to take control at the expense of the part of the brain that does cool rational thought.

This is where zombies come in really, really useful.  Zombies are familiar.  Zombies are predictable.  Everyone can understand how zombies work: human gets bitten – human dies – human is reanimated as a zombie – new zombie shambles off in search of other humans to bite – and so it goes on.  Nothing difficult about that.  Some zombies are even funny.  You can talk about zombies with your mates, and be reasonably certain that they know what you’re talking about, and that they’re laughing with you, rather than at you.  All of these factors help to keep the freeze, fight or flight response at bay.  OK, so there’s a equation on the page, and equations are bit scary, but this one is surrounded by the shuffling, groaning, flesh-eating undead, so it must be OK, right?

That’s my theory, anyhow.

Hold on a moment….  I just need to find out what that funny scratching noise is on the window.. …. ….. …………..



Posted May 6, 2016 by HVS in Mathematics, Memes, Physics, STEM & STEAM, Zombies

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