Zombies are one of those iconic monsters everyone knows the rules for. With a vampire you stake them through the heart (although let's be frank, wouldn't that kill most things?). With a werewolf it's silver bullets through the heart (again...wouldn't that work for anything?). And then for a zombie it's all about removing the head or destroying the brain (seriously, why are these even rules?)
Zombies - reanimated human corpses who shamble along seeking victims - come from Haitain folklore. In the original stories, zombies are usually brought back to life by witch-doctors and they perform their master's bidding.
The modern idea of a zombie as a flesh-eating corpse came much later, almost entirely from George A. Romero and his iconic series of films: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead.
These films introduced what we now think of as a zombie and the idea of a zombie apocalypse where modern society has crumbled and the remaining humans live in secluded shelters while the world belongs to the walking dead.
Today zombies show up everywhere from The Simpsons to Harry Potter and at the moment the abc TV series The Walking Dead gives us a flavour of how humans would survive in the deep south of America. In fact, the US Department of Health even commissioned a report on how the CDC might help prevent a zombie apocalypse. Think I'm joking? Check this link: CDC Zombie initiative. There, who's joking now.
What would happen in an apocalypse?
Let's say something really did go wrong with our infrastructure and people all abandoned their posts to go home and be with loved ones/loot the local shops (NB: timjamesScience does not endorse looting of local shops). Well, the first thing to go would be electricity. While there are some hydroelectric power stations and wind-farms, the majority of our electricity is provided either by nuclear or fossil-fuel stations.
They both work in the same way: generate an unholy amount of heat (either by bringing radioactive material close together or by burning mountains of fossil-fuel) and use it to boil water. That produces steam which is used to turn a turbine hooked up to a generator, giving us that delicious 50 Hz Alternating Current (NB: the electrical current output of a power station is not actually delicious and will kill you, timjamesScience does not endorse the licking of power lines).
Both types of power station have a lot of things that can go wrong so here's the thing: they're actually designed to shut down as quickly as possible if nobody's manning the controls. Power stations generally get an "emergency shutdown alarm" every hour. Something being too hot, too pressured, too fast etc. will trigger these alarms and everything powers off unless the crew are there to keep it alive.
In fact, a lot of people at a Power Station are employed to stop it from deactivating because it's designed to as a safety measure. So, if all the power station workers are running home to escape the zombie horde, the power stations will go dark very quickly.
Your phone signal will go shortly after. The phone itself is battery operated, but the base-stations where your calls and texts are recieved are run by mains electricity. They usually have backup generators so if you're very lucky yours might remain active for a couple of days after the blackout, but that's being very optimistic. There are no phone networks I know of that have a zombie contingency plan. Not even EE.
After the power stations go, the next thing you'll probably lose will be water. Although the water flow in your taps and boilers will last a couple of days, most water has to be pumped. Thing is, we tend to live above water level (it would be pretty stupid to do the opposite). So most water has to be mechanically raised from the water table to get it to people's homes...and those pumps are electrically powered. So if the power stations go, so does the water supply. Followed swiftly by your gas supply (for the same reasons, gas will flow but the pumps to control it are electrical).
So electricity goes, followed by phone and internet signals, and then finally your water, gas and heating. Unless you live in Scandanavia where most of the power is generated from renewable sources. Those guys have thought of everything.
Your best bet for communicating with other people (and negotiating your entry into Sweden, offering Kevin Bacon as payment) is either going to be a HAM radio (battery powered radio transmitter/recievers) which don't rely on base stations) or a satellite phone which communicates with - you guessed it - satellites. We're going to assume here that the zombies haven't made it into space. Although that would make a pretty awesome movie.
Could zombies really happen?
From a biological perspective we have to remember that the idea of a zombie is a person who dies then comes back to life as a reanimated corpse. I'm going to discount the "zoombies" or "turbo-zombies" from movies like 28 Days Later or World War Z because in those movies, the people weren't necessarily dying and coming back, they were being infected with some kind of virus. I'm talking about actual, shambling around, walking-dead, human-eating groany type zombies...could they happen? Oh and none of your wussy "zombies with feelings" nonsense.
The answer to whether the walking dead could happen is, reassuringly, no. And here's the reason. For something to be moving their muscles have to be working. For muscles to work they need to be carrying out respiration. Respiration is the chemical reaction that takes place in all your cells where oxygen is reacted with glucose. This means the zombies need a fresh supply of oxygen to carry out respiration which means they need a working heart and a working set of lungs. And if you've died, these things don't reanimate because they decompose very, very quickly. When you see zombies in movies they are always decaying as they walk. Which means their lungs and heart won't be working for much longer.
Furthermore, if the zombies didn't get hold of glucose (the other necessary chemical) they'd die out in a few weeks anyway. So your best bet for surviving the zombie apocalypse really is to bunker down somewhere and wait for the zombies to starve. If there's nothing for them to eat, they don't respirate, no movement, no walking corpses. Done.
I know you hear urban legends and stories about people medically dying and coming back, but they are just that - stories. There are no recorded instances in medical history of a person actually medically dying (as in, the cells in their spinal column cease respiration) and then reanimating. Sometimes doctors can make mistakes and comatose patients are declared dead, but this was the doctor making a mistake. Once you're braindead, that's it. You don't come back from it. You start decaying immediately and there is no known way of reanimating the brain, heart and lungs in order to generate a walking-dead thing. It just doesn't happen. People don't come back from the dead.
Although, if you want to read about something really interesting, check out Cotard's delusion; a rare mental condition in which the patient believes they have died and that their body is decaying. Maybe that's where the zombie myth originally came from?? But who would dare suggest there are Scientific explanations for superstitious beliefs? Not me.
Rick Grimes with gun: hiddenremote
Kevin Bacon: examiner
Ham radio: Photosopphed by the user "RagnarokDel" at linustechtips
Warm Bodies: vignette4
Axl Rose: thegauntlet
OK, so my last blog post about cancer may have gotten a little serious. Sorry about that. To make up for it, here's a genuine picture of Abraham Lincoln fighting a polar bear with chainsaws for arms...
Now here’s a question. Which Power Ranger was the most racist? Trick question, the answer is all of them!
Some questions might be a little easier to answer on the other hand, such as: which flavour of crisp is the best (Salt and Vinegar), does anybody like gherkins (no) and who would win in a fight between Optimus Prime and Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird? Trick question again, they would unite forces.
Even that debate about whether Jaffa Cakes are technically a biscuit or a cake has a legitimate answer. A cake is something which hardens over time while a biscuit gets softer, making Jaffa Cakes, legally speaking, a cake. How do I know that? My old Physics teacher used to work as an accountant for the legal firm which helped McVities win a court case about biscuit terminology.
That’s true. No seriously, that’s true. I know I've lost your faith after posting that Lincoln-bear picture, but this is honestly true. Look up the VAT Mcvities Tribunal of 1991. My Physics teacher's name was Mr. Harrington and he taught me Physics from years 10-13. We used to call him Haribo. (By the way, sir, if you're reading this...sorry for that)
But which Science is the best one?
At school we study Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Umbrella terms for enormous bodies of knowledge. Biology is the study of anything that lives (Biology literally means “the words of life”), Chemistry is the study of substances and observable change, while Physics is the study of…well, sort of everything else.
Unfortunately, Physics in school is a bits ‘n’ pieces subject with lots of unrelated things slapped together under the same heading. Space, electricity, particles, forces and motion, heat and a whole bunch of other stuff get thrown together without coherency. It’s a dog’s dinner made of bits which are fascinating in their own right but don’t quite gel. Kind of like a Coen brothers movie.
Splitting knowledge into these factions is a risky game because it's often so broad as to be meaningless. Even Biology, which has a definite circumference (living stuff) can be broken into a buffet of sub-topics. Physiology, Zoology, Ethology, Anatomy, Medicine, Cell Biology, Immunology, Molecular Biology, Neurology, Neuroscience and so on.
Plus, what do we do with Biochemistry - the study of how chemicals interact with living systems? Or what about molecular astronomy - the study of chemicals found in space? And what about subjects like Geology or Climate Science? They don’t fit into neat brackets at all!
Grouping things into Biology, Chemistry and Physics is like trying to categorise Shakespeare’s plays into comedy, tragedy and history (which people still do for some reason). It’s an unnecessary and foolish endeavour. You’ll have to twist and bend your definitions to fit the group labels and the overall result will be a nonsensical mess. Kind of like a Coen Brothers movie.
Richard “Friendly Man” Dawkins, has argued in favour of something called Heirarchical Reductionism in Science; the idea that Biology is applied Chemistry and Chemistry is applied Physics etc. Other Scientists like Philip Anderson have argued in the other direction. If you were to take a computer program and plug in all the laws of Physics it wouldn’t necessarily generate the Biological complexity of a frog for instance. You can't just say Chemistry is a form of Physics and Biology is a form of Chemistry.
You could easily create a Universe which had all the same physical laws but which had no life at all. Or possibly life, but not human life. Or maybe human life, but not the Kardashian sisters, and really that’s what Science is all about. Trying to create a Universe where the Kardashians aren’t permitted to exist.
You want to know about a group of sisters who really did something to change the world? You want the Sisters of the Sun (also called the Harvard Computers), they were the women who catalogued, categorised and explained how the Universe evolves. These women practically invented the field of astrophysics.
There’s a rivalry among Scientists sometimes. It’s often in good humour but occasionally it’s not. Robert Sapolsky (a Stanford Biologist) has noted that many Biological and Social Scientists seem to suffer from what he calls “Physics envy” i.e. Physics is full of equations and strange sounding terminology, so some Biologists stick unnecessary complications and mathematics into their work to make it feel “more Sciencey”.
I think there is a perception some people have that Physics is somehow “purer” or “more intellectual” than other Sciences. It is true that you can reduce Chemistry to Physics, but I don’t think this makes Chemistry somehow less cool or prestigious. I mean if you really boil things down, the most fundamental field of study is Quantum Mechanics. Are you going to tell me that studying space, or the human brain, or chimpanzees is somehow not interesting?
Yes, Physics is about discovering the deepest, most fundamental ways nature behaves but how do you test any Physics theory? With Chemistry! If Physics predicts that particles should arrange themselves into a particular shape, the best way to test it would be to actually look at how the chemical behaves in a lab aka Chemistry. Chemistry is the validation Physics desperately needs.
And then, once we know how simple chemicals behave we can predict how complex chemical systems might behave, and we have a word for testing that too: Biochemistry. And so on and so on.
Me personally? I like to try, as best I can, to follow in the footsteps of Doc Brown who says, in Back to the Future III: “I consider myself a student of all Sciences”. To him, Science was just studying the world and, really, every part of the world is interesting if you go into enough detail.
Physics is the most fundamental Science. Chemistry is the one we have the most influence over. Biology is the most relevant. Astronomy is the most profound. Earth science is the most vital to survival. And so on. Every Science has its claim to importance and none of them matter more than any of the others.
At University my Master’s research was in Biophysical Chemistry. The strange land where all three disciplines of Science overlap. If you’re interested, what I was doing was using something called computational quantum mechanics (particle and theoretical physics), mixed with a bit of statistical thermodynamics (normal physics) to model the interactions between ionic liquids (chemistry) and plant-matter (biology).
This was the culmination of a decade’s Scientific education, although granted I was always on the back foot learning the Biology stuff. I became passionate about Chemistry and Physics as a teenager and only came to love Biology late in life. That’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t teach Biology at A-level. I just don’t know anywhere near enough about it.
Apart from the structure of wood – seriously, I know a freakish amount about that.
Some of my students have asked which subject I prefer teaching, Chemistry or Physics and I don’t have an answer. It’s like asking which of my eyes is my favourite. I like having both of them in my life. They both help me see the world.
But also, the right one.
I don’t have a personal favourite part of Science, although if I’m completely honest I think there’s a nostalgic part of me which is still in love with quantum mechanics. It’s the subject which got me into Science when I was 14 and I’ll probably always have a special place for it in my amygdala.
I think deciding on the best Science is infeasible, not just because they overlap but because they’re all interesting and we need each of them. If we’re going to survive this gauntlet called “living in the natural world” we need to know as much about that world as possible.
So which is the best Science? I’m afraid that too was a trick question. The answer is all of them.
Lincoln vs Bear: deviantart
The Man who Wasn't There: unsung films
The Man who STILL Wasn't There: blogspot
Doc Brown: Wikia
Sisters of the Sun: Wikipedia
I love science, let me tell you why.