Mathematician Sarah Eichhorn, left, and neurobiologist Andrea Nicholas brought the zombie apocalypse to life at Idea Fest on Thursday. Photo by Kevin Gibson.
Mathematician Sarah Eichhorn, left, and neurobiologist Andrea Nicholas brought the zombie apocalypse to life at IdeaFest on Thursday. Photo by Kevin Gibson.

A zombie apocalypse could happen, and Thursday’s IdeaFestival session “Surviving the Great Zombie Apocalypse” confirmed it. OK, well, not exactly.

But the intriguing session — especially for fans of “The Walking Dead” and other zombie fiction — did point out how it could theoretically happen and ways we might cope if it ever does. It also confirmed that in terms of survival, Daryl Dixon from the popular AMC television series had it right all along.

The session was hosted by mathematician Sarah Eichhorn and neurobiologist Andrea Nicholas, the former of whom explored the equations behind determining survival possibilities and how quickly the zombie plague might spread. Nicholas, meanwhile, pondered ways in which such a virus could become a reality based on known neuroscience.

The subject matter was intriguing and a bit frightening.

Sara Eichhorn.
Sarah Eichhorn

First the numbers. Let’s say a zombie plague breaks out, and the way it is transferred is through bites. Eichhorn, clad in a “No Zombies” T-shirt, laid out for the audience mathematical equations by which we could reasonably predict humanity’s likelihood of survival. In certain scenarios based on theoretical circumstances, she came up with a life span for a small group (500) of just a couple of days.

Basically, she said, if the group inside the Bomhard Theater before her represented the alpha group in the equation and only one of that group was a zombie, based on theoretical infection rates and the probability of exponential growth, we’re looking at about seven days of survival.

“Good luck to us,” she said.

Of course, if we could, in the amount of time provided, manage to increase the zombie kill rate — say, if we all go Rick Grimes Neanderthal in the first three or four days — that increases the theoretical survival time. (I never liked algebra in high school, but explaining it this way really might have changed things for me.)

Andrea Nicholas.
Andrea Nicholas

Nicholas took the stage and began comparing the fictional zombie virus in popular media such as “The Walking Dead” and drew a parallel to another disease we have known about for centuries: rabies. Rabies, as we know, affects mammals, is a disease often spread through saliva (bat bites, etc.), and causes symptoms that can be eerily similar to those in zombie fiction, such as pica (a hunger for things not normally consumed), dropped jaw, aggression, salivation, lack of coordination and more.

She presented an MRI image of a deceased brain (that looked almost identical to one used at the end of the first season of “The Walking Dead,” which can’t possibly be a coincidence) and noted that rabies, like the fictional zombie virus, spreads through the nerves and then into the brain’s neurons.

So, what if a strain of such a virus managed to somehow reawaken the dopamine system, which controls motivation and coordinated movement, among other things? She pointed to the two specific areas of the system and said, “If this virus were to reanimate these two areas — ah, a zombie.”

She then began to discuss bacteriophages, which is when things got kind of scary. If you think about it, no disease is going to evolve that kills its host. But what if it were a bacteria to which a virus has attached in a symbiotic union? Yeah, that’s what flesh-eating bacteria is — a once-harmless bacteria that figured out how to eat human flesh thanks to a piggybacking virus.

So, the bacteria component eats the rotting flesh, and the virus survives on the bacteria. And if they both live off the fresh flesh and brains being devoured by the zombie, then the zombie is nothing but an animated host. A big one. With teeth.

What if the deadly ebola virus latches onto something like flesh-eating bacteria? Theoretically, could a bacteriophage, or bacterial infection, mutate into something that creates a real-life “Walking Dead” scenario? Probably not. Of course, we never thought a bacteria would eat someone’s forehead, either.

Zombies Idea FestBut Nicholas also noted that scientists are creating synthetic versions of these things in laboratories in hopes of using them for future medical applications. Which is to say that one day we may be seeing pharmaceutical commercials with subtle warnings, like, “May cause loss of limbs and a wanton hunger for human flesh. Talk to your doctor before using.”

Which brought it all back to one thing: How do we increase our mathematical odds of survival? Well, one way is to have lots of babies to improve our numbers. But if our expected survival rate is less than that of a human gestation period, that’s probably not a realistic answer (also, babies suck at zombie killing). Another would be to develop a vaccine or find a way to “cure” the zombies. Of course, lowering the infection rate — perhaps by wearing armor or staying the hell away from people who want to bite your face off — is another one.

And then there’s the Rick Grimes way: by kicking (or stabbing or shooting) the living crap out of anything or anyone that tries to eff with you. And that brings us full circle back to Daryl Dixon — as part of Eichhorn’s research (she taught an online course dubbed “Lessons From AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead’”), she learned that the best weapon in the case of a true zombie apocalypse is a crossbow, the weapon of choice of the TV series character Dixon (Grimes normally uses a knife, a gun, his fists or his teeth).

Why? Because the velocity developed by a crossbow is the most suitable for not only penetrating a human skull consistently, but maintaining the level of momentum that would carry the arrow through the brain. This, of course, is how you kill that pesky reanimated dopamine system that is causing all the inconveniences in the first place.

“Why is that good news for us?” Eichhorn asked. “Reusable ammunition.”

I don’t want to alarm anyone, but the ebola virus is in the U.S. now, and the infected man who brought it here is believed to have interacted with as many as 100 people, including his family. All I’m saying is that it might be time to go to Bass Pro to do a little crossbow shopping.

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Kevin Gibson
Kevin Gibson tackles the 3Rs — retail, restaurants, real estate — plus, economic development. He loves bacon, loathes cucumbers and once interviewed Yoko Ono. Check out his books, “Louisville Beer: Derby City History on Draft” and “100 Things to do in Louisville Before You Die.” He has won numerous awards for his work but doesn’t know where most of them are now. In his spare time, he plays in a band called the Uncommon Houseflies. Email Kevin at [email protected]