When it comes to cultural curiosities, few compare to the popularity of zombies. These undead creatures, born out of Haitian mysticism, have become a worldwide phenomenon. Around the world, cities host thousands of people for zombie walks to celebrate these rather grotesque creatures with a hunger for brains. Books and movies have been made about them and a few years back, the CDC developed a zombie preparedness plan for the so-called “zombie apocalypse”.


(granted it was tongue-in-cheek)

But while zombie-based research may seem to fall in the realms of microbiology (zombie virus), physics (zombie radiation), or survivalism, the one area gaining the most ground is epidemiology, better known as the study of disease spread.

The tools of this branch of science are mainly mathematical and have helped to understand how a variety of infections can spread. But when it comes to total annihilation, nothing beats the zombie apocalypse as a model. This fictitious event can provide the perfect base for complex equations to determine how a pathogen might spread. To wit, scientific articles and even academic books have been written on the subject.

But now it seems zombies may be used as a learning tool for mathematics. In a recent study, a group of researchers make the case for using popular culture as a base for scientific learning. They expressed their views in a paper, which you can read here:

Equations of the End: Teaching Mathematical Modeling Using the Zombie Apocalypse

As the authors state in the conclusion, the approach:

“brings the teaching of infectious disease modeling into line with how biology, epidemiology, and public health are often taught, with subject-matter expertise being acquired after, or alongside, general methodological sophistication, rather than acting as an impediment to it.”

Granted, that’s a pretty long sentence to justify their perspective. Yet, the gist is pretty common to anyone performing science communication. If you want to make a rather dry subject seem interesting, throw in some pop culture.

The beautiful part about this direction is the ability to make up the details as you go along. Unlike some of those pandemic movies, which are usually subject to much scientific criticising, being accurate to the specifics isn’t needed; zombies are fiction.

So, if you want to have some fun learning about how it might end, take a look at the paper and keep your eyes out for courses. Much like zombie-based activities, I’m sure the learning opportunities will be popping up everywhere fairly soon.