Halloween Lecture: Zombie Science 1Z

Posted by Kelly Gardner on October 31, 2011 in Reviews tagged with , , , ,

Zombie Science 1Z? A lecture dedicated to the science of zombies?

This year the Dundee Science Festival has taken advantage of both Halloween and the popularity of Zombies, to host a lecture on the real science behind the figure of the zombie.

Zombie Science 1Z is described as a “spoof lecture on the real science behind the undead.” Despite the emphasis placed on Science, I attended the lecture expecting it to follow in the general direction of Max Brooks’ “The Zombie Survival Guide”, the skeptical and slightly fearful faces of fellow attendees suggested that they were under the same impression. While the lecture did discuss the various options for avoiding and eliminating the walking dead, the intention of the lecture was to debunk certain myths perpetuated by the popular culture figure of the zombie. Zombie Science 1Z is a Time-Tastical production which, in collaboration with the University of Glasgow, specializes in communicating difficult science to the general public. Had I read the brochure before the actual lecture I would have known this, the fact that I hadn’t meant for the majority of the lecture I was convinced that Zombie Science 1Z was a governmental attempt to lull the general public into a false sense of security regarding the impossibility of an eventual zombie outbreak.
The lecture theatre for the event was decked out with a number of curious props, including a questionable table covered by a white sheet, later revealed to be a giant cauliflower and a feather duster and a tennis racket redesigned as a crossbow. Attendees were met at the door by the comical lecturer: a tall, gangly stereotype of a professor with coke bottle glasses. Members of the audience were given printed course notes at the door and there was an almost tangible presence of excitement as the lecture theatre quickly filled up with students, adolescents and a few dubious parents.

The lecturer, Dr Austin, began by debunking a few myths that separate fictional zombies from real ones. He explained the term “undead” as simply being the opposite of “dead” thereby enabling him to use the terms “undead” and “alive” interchangeably (at this point I began to lose hope of the lecturer’s credible knowledge of zombies). He also suggested that the insatiable hunger exhibited by fictional zombies would not only be reserved for human flesh by their real world counter parts, but rather real zombies would have an insatiable hunger for anything and would be just as likely to consume the wooden bat you were using to defend yourself with as they would be to consume you. He went on to explain that the fictional zombie’s inability to feel pain is akin to congenital insensitivity to pain, a condition that an individual must be born with, which suggests that it cannot be simply developed. Dr Austin explained that there is currently no scientifically recognizable cause to indicate that a zombie would feel no pain, which was very much inline with the rest of the lecture; that there is currently no scientifically recognizable cause to suggest the possibility of a real life zombie outbreak.
By this point, the zombie fan within me was vehemently arguing the ignorance of science and I was certain that this lecture was a mere cover up for an impending zombie outbreak.
The second module of the lecture examined the possible causes of Zombieism and suggested that if a zombie outbreak were to occur it would most probably be caused by a rogue prion: “A prion is a rogue form of protein. The normal form of the prion protein is produced naturally in all mammals and is harmless. However altered forms can become infectious agents.” (Zombie Science 1Z- The Textbook, Dr Austin). Prion diseases, while few in number, exist in multiple strains with new diseases being discovered regularly. The main example of a prion disease is Creautsfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD), an incurable fatal disease thought to be the human form of Mad Cow Disease. Rogue prions, their characteristics, causes, and implications are the topics of much scientific debate which suggests that science is not yet able to completely “explain away” figures of Gothic fiction.
The Third module of the lecture examined various ways of preventing and curing zombieism. While it included the standard “Go for the brain” technique, the focus was mainly placed on zombie infected members of the public as still maintaining their human traits and therefore to not be seen as flesh hungry monsters but rather as infected individuals in need of a cure. Despite the obvious attempt to prevent the victims of a real zombie virus becoming the objects of unnessesary violence, I found myself realizing that the “living” aspect of real zombies implies something else, a shot to the heart is as good as a shot to the head.

To sum up my experience, the lecture was thoroughly enjoyable, Dr Austin was believable in his role as an enthusiastic lecturer and the possibility that a rogue prion could lead to real-life zombieism terrified and titillated simultaneously. However, I also left feeling slightly confused with regard to the distinctions made between fictional and real life zombies. In the third module of the lecture two participants were required from the audience, the first involved smashing a whole cauliflower to bits using a feather duster and the second saw a young boy volunteer to demonstrate the proper way a zombie should be shot in the head to destroy its brain. Following these entertaining acts of artistic weaponry, the audience was told that zombies are still real humans and what they need is a cure, not a bullet to the brain. The educational lecture is aimed at school children over the age of 13 (with an over 18 show designed specifically for adults) and I feel the distinction between real and fictional zombies overlapped to the point of confusion, well, on my part anyway and despite the knowledge I have acquired from the lecture and the accompanying text book, when faced with a zombie in the near future the first thing I will be reaching for is my sledge hammer.

Introduction to Zombie Science

(Click the above link for a YouTube video of the lecture)

I would, however, recommend that anyone interested in zombies take a look at the website for Zombie Science 1Z, where you can take the course exam or buy Dr Austins Zombie Science 1Z text book which goes into greater scientific detail in its exploration of the zombie. http://www.zombiescience.co.uk/
Dr Austins is also currently holding a Halloween competition on his blog, where you could stand the chance of winning a copy of “The Walking Dead, Rise of the Governor” by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga. To enter http://zomblogofficial.blogspot.com/

If you are interested in attending the Zombie Science 1Z, the last three shows for 2011 will be held at The London Horror Festival on the 15th, 16th and 17th of November 2011. For more information go to http://www.londonhorrorfestival.com/shows/zombie-science-1z

The Dundee Science Festival 2011 will run until 13th November 2011 for more information go to http://www.dundeesciencefestival.org/

Dr Austin in action

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