Friday, 27 April 2012

Hypothetical Hunger

Welcome once again Zombiology Students,

I was contacted by Albert who asked me the following;

“Say there was a zombie apocalypse and all humans were eradicated.  What would the zombies do after they have eaten all the human brains and (as far as I know) depleted their only source of nutrients?  Is there any knowledge regarding this topic?  They wouldn't just starve themselves out, would they?”

But we haven't thought about food security, not one meeting.
Before I can answer it we must first establish some points about Zombieism. Regular visitors will be aware of our Institute’s current Zombieism research and can skip this section, but for those of you not familiar with it, read on. Here at the ZITS we believe that zombie’s will most likely be caused by a new type of prion disease, similar to vCJD AKA human mad cow disease. Unlike movie zombies, sufferers will not eat only human flesh or brains, but any food source they come across. In fact there is presently nothing that can occur in a human to make them only want to eat human flesh or brains. Genuine Zombieism is highly unlikely to make a person become clinically dead, then return to life, referred to in fiction as undead. They would in reality be a human who has contracted an illness with specific symptoms. They would not live indefinitely, but wither and die as the disease progressed. How long that would take very much depends on the causal agent.  Furthermore, prion disease is very rare in humans, to date there have been less than 200 cases of vCJD, so at the moment it is very unlikely we will reach a scenario whereby there were no humans left who were not infected.

Of course there is no guarantee that Zombieism will be the result of a prion disease, it might be a new strain of virus or a previously unseen parasite. So to answer Albert’s question we can widen our net to include these biological agents. The fact that you are alive and reading this means that there has not yet been a disease that has wiped out the human race, or left only infected humans, unless such a disease occurred a very long time ago to a different species of Homo genus.   

The Homo Simponus perhaps ...?
If we look at the most deadly disease pandemics that have occurred we can try and seek a comparison. The Spanish Flu may be the deadliest pandemic in history, with somewhere between 20 – 200 million people dying because of it. Then there is the infamous bubonic plague that throughout its history has claimed the lives of some 200 million victims. Now whilst these diseases have produced a tremendous loss of life it is worth bearing in mind that the human population is presently just over seven billion. So Zombieism would have to be particularly vicious to turn us all.

But let’s think hypothetically, say Zombieism did spread to the entire population of the world, how long would the food supply last? We produce around seven billion tons of food each year. If everyone in the world has succumbed to Zombieism, it is safe to say no one will be producing any more. It is very difficult to get exact figures to work with here. It is hard to know how much food is readily accessible to the zombies. Some may be in cans they cannot open, and as a zombie isn’t exactly a gourmet chef, they’re going to be going for raw food only. Zombies may also consume each other when they get desperate.

'We've had some times zombie-ing together Bill but I can't take your moaning one minute more'.
The average person/zombie needs between 2,000 – 3,000 calories a day. In 2003, the world produced 2,809 calories per person per day, but by the end of 2006 there was only enough of a reserve to last the world 57 days. I haven’t been able to source data more recent than that, but we could assume that we’re running a careful balance these days whereby we only just keep producing enough food to get by, without having large reserves. So by the time we reached a point where there were only zombies, and no one producing more food, these zombies would run out of food in probably a matter of weeks, maybe even days.

How long the zombies will ultimately survive from there depends on how long the disease takes to kill them, assuming they don’t die of starvation, or dehydration, first. With a prion disease we estimate a person surviving three to six months after full onset. A more aggressive biological agent, like a virus, may act even quicker.

So in conclusion, the answer to the question, ‘what would the zombies do after they have depleted their only source of nutrients’ is ... they would die. However it is unlikely we’d reach a scenario where everybody was infected by Zombieism in the first place, and if we do there’s no need to worry, because you’d soon be dead.

As always, if there is anything you want to know about the real science behind zombies, do get in touch. We’ll always do our best to answer your questions, no matter how difficult or strange. You can contact the Institute at

Best wishes,

Doctor Austin
Doctor Austin ZITS BSz MSz DPep, is a Theoretical Zombiologist and Head of the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland UK.  

For even more Zombie Science pick up the official Zombie Science book on Amazon now

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

A Fission of Zombies

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Greetings Zombiology Students,

I got an email from Leigh who asked, “What would you think to be the least likely theory of zombies?”

Zombiology students out there will be aware that many natural and manmade factors are blamed for zombie outbreaks in fiction. Whether it’s a genetically modified virus, a minute nanobot, or a chemical found in a fish, Hollywood is always there to distort the scientific truth behind everything, to give us a plausible, or just fresh, reason for zombies taking over the Earth.
We're not running out of zombie film ideas ... honest
Regular readers will know my favourite zombie film is George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (in black & white only). I watch it every day, and twice on a Saturday, for a wee treat. Whilst not stated explicitly, it is implied that Radiation is the cause of the zombie outbreak.

Radiation is energy that travels across space in the form of waves or high-speed particles. A high enough blast of this energy can ionize atoms. Atoms are found in human cells, so this ionization can cause serious damage to them, potentially resulting in conditions like cancer.

The vast majority of background radiation we encounter occurs naturally. Cosmic rays reach us from space, gas is emitted from rocks in the ground … in fact radiation is pretty much everywhere you can think of.

We humans are of course working hard every year, building nuclear power stations, nuclear weapons, using X-rays … generally trying our dandiest to add to radiation levels. Sadly, despite our best efforts, man-made sources still only account for 15% of all the radiation we are exposed to. It mainly reaches us through medical X-rays and airport security checks.
Now, would you jump up and down for me, for security reasons.
Every day thousands of staff work in these environments, and whilst it may look like Heathrow’s Terminal Five is a scene choreographed by Mr Romero, airport staff don’t actually appear to be turning radioactive. Or into zombies. Yet.

In situations where much stronger doses of radiation are applied we can begin to get a measure of its effect. America used atomic bombs against the Japanese in World War II. Modified bomber planes dropped two bombs that were the equivalent of 20,000 tonnes of TNT onto the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The destruction they caused is difficult to imagine. Unless you’re Michael Bay.

I can imagine any explosion. Even with one arm tied behind my back, by another explosion.
Almost 2,000 feet above the city of Hiroshima, the bomb exploded. What was once a thriving city was now a burning crater. Thousands were killed instantly and thousands more slowly died of radiation sickness. The main causes of death during a nuclear blast are thermal burns, brought about as a result of infrared radiation, and fatal injuries caused by falling structures. Thermal burns are usually only visible on the side of the patient exposed to the blast itself. Patients might also exhibit beta and gamma burns after a radioactive attack.
Hollywood's idea of the effect of gamma radiation on humans. No Hollywood. Bad Hollywood.
Those who survive the initial blast may go on to develop radiation sickness. Its symptoms include: nausea, vomiting, hair loss, organ failure, weakness and death. The exact selection of symptoms you develop is heavily dependent on what level of radiation dose you have been subjected to.
A woman with radiation sickness.
Radiation, when used as a weapon, definitely paints the kind of apocalyptic picture we’d expect from a zombie film. The bombings of World War II did create burning wastelands where disfigured people stumbled around confused and uttering painful sounds. Yet this is not quite the scenario we seek in terms of a Zombieism outbreak. Aside from the aesthetic qualities left by the blast, radiation exposure and radiation sickness just don’t provide the symptoms we are searching for.

This is not, however, the only way radiation can mess with us humans. What occurred with the Simpsons’ three-eyed fish can also happen to us; we can become mutated. In reality mutation doesn’t occur in quite the same way as it is portrayed in the movies. Also, in real life mutations the effects are slower and much less outwardly noticeable. They are usually heredity, meaning they are passed on to the children of those affected.

The primary condition found in abundance after nuclear accidents or attacks is cancer. This field of research is under considerable debate at the time of writing and more about the long-term effects of radiation exposure is bound to develop over the next few years.

Ultimately radiation has failed to provide the required symptoms needed for Zombieism. This may be because its effects are often uncoordinated. All areas of the body can be hit in different ways by radiation, whereas we are seeking something with the precision skills to mainly go for the brain.

So to answer your question Leigh, I would say Radiation is the least likely factor to result in the creation of zombies.
Sorry Mr. Romero. Sir. God?
I hope you enjoyed your answer Leigh, and if any of you out there want to know anything about the real science behind zombies, do send your questions in to or post them on our Facebook page (

Best wishes,

Doctor Austin
Doctor Austin ZITS BSz MSz DPep, is a Theoretical Zombiologist and Head of the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland UK.  

For even more Zombie Science pick up the official Zombie Science book on Amazon now

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Getting a Zombie grip, and maybe a rip

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Good day Zombiology Students,

The recent exciting series of the Walking Dead has inspired my students to ask a lot of new zombie questions.
Andrew, an excellent student of mine, asked me this, ‘Are zombies able to tear into someone’s guts with their bare hands? We all know they like to use their teeth but can say Granny Z (that is a zombie with no teeth) uses its hands to tear us into swallow-able pieces? We have already seen zombies have no self-preservation instinct so assuming no atrophy or other degradation of the muscle mass should we not be conscious of the fact that zombies will bring a greater strength to bear as they will not care about injuring themselves? Something any human is capable of (imagine pre-zombie granny Z lifting a car off her grandchild) under particular circumstances’.

I hope the answer is no, but I have my doubts.
Let’s start with the first part, can a human being tear apart another human being bare handed? Well yes, yes they can. As recently as October 2011 a man in Italy tore out his own eyeballs during a Church sermon, and in 2006 a man in the USA lifted a 3,000 pound car to free an injured cyclist. With practice most of us could tear a phone book in half, even if I myself have never managed it.

Success! I can't wait to call my friends, what are there numbers? Oh.
But a person suffering from our proposed Zombieism Prion Disease would be very unsteady on their feet, and have poor control over their limbs. Also, because Zombieism would be a new form of prion disease, it may incorporate the symptoms and characteristics of other current prion diseases. For example Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), causes amongst other things, extreme weight loss. Although it affects animals at present CWD could develop into part of the new Zombieism Prion Disease. So there is a good chance Zombieism would reduce a person’s strength considerably.

With regard to self-preservation amongst zombies, we certainly see that symptom in the movies, with zombies happily walking through rotor blades on the off chance of getting a snack. In our studies we have concluded that real life zombies would feel pain. The condition congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP), which prevents sufferers feeling the signal of pain, is something one is born with. It cannot be caught like a cold. This condition is the closest comparable one we’ve found to that fictional zombie symptom. CIP is very rare, with only around 100 cases in the USA, so we can bet a real zombie is very unlikely to have that symptom.

No stinkin' helicopter rotor is getting between me and my brunch.
However we know that Zombieism causes a lot of damage to the brain. One area of the brain, the amygdala, is responsible for our instincts. Shaped like an almond, and buried deep with the temporal lobes, it produces much of not only our instincts, but our base emotions as well. If Zombieism caused damage to this area, it may produce a zombie that was overcome with instinct, so much so it may show disregard for pain, even if it was feeling it.

Finally let’s go back to those events, like Andrew’s ‘Granny lifting a car idea’, where people show moments of almost super human strength. In a dangerous situation the human body goes through some interesting changes.

I'll either lift that car, or shoot it off. 
In the brain, the hypothalamus activates, sending a chemical signal adrenal glands. These glands produce adrenalin, which is to the human body, what spinach is to Popeye. When fuelled by adrenalin our muscles are able to contract more. This suddenly gives us the ability to perform actions, like lifting a car, actions we normally couldn’t have managed. Some believe that most of time we only use a small proportion of our strength. When under threat we simply gain the ability to expand on what we already have. But these fits of strength are short lived. Within a few minutes of happening the body begins to return to a more normal state.

It’s a lot like those friends of Captain America, the Six American Warriors, who were given a less refined version of the super solider serum. It gave them Cap’s powers but only for a short time. Inevitably these newly found super powers would give out during a pivotal moment in the plot. On the bright side they do always return during final battles.

The Six American Warriors, well, em, I can name one...
To conclude; zombies do have the potential to tear a human apart. Like humans, when faced with a dangerous situation they may also receive an adrenalin rush, giving them a short burst of enhanced strength. However the Zombieism disease would be badly affecting their ability to move both legs & arms, and may be causing wasting of the body. So they may lack comparable strength to a healthy human.

Ultimately zombies are like fingerprints, each one is different. And just like fingerprints they inevitably end up all over your glass door. No zombie would have the exact same presentation of the disease as another, so some may be more akin to human, and others more akin to demons.

I just washed these you inconsiderate fiends! 
Thank you Andrew for a great question, and if any of you out there want to know anything about the real science behind zombies, do get in touch on

Best wishes,

Doctor Austin
Doctor Austin ZITS BSz MSz DPep, is a Theoretical Zombiologist and Head of the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland UK.  

For even more Zombie Science pick up the official Zombie Science book on Amazon now