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Professor uses mathematics to defend against the zombie apocalypse

"It has always been one of my goals to get people more interested in the application of mathematics," says Robert Smith?.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | AUG 20 2014

Zombies have spread like a virus through popular culture. They’re also a useful, albeit fanciful, way to demonstrate how a real virus might spread in the human population, says Robert Smith?, an associate professor in the department of mathematics and statistics at the University of Ottawa (the professor spells his name with a question mark). He has become the go-to guy for the mathematical modeling of a zombie outbreak ever since the publication of his first paper on the subject in 2009.

Dr. Smith? has created real-world mathematical models for the spread of HIV, the human papilloma virus and tropical diseases like malaria. It was during a class project that his students suggested applying these models to a fictional zombie apocalypse. He decided subsequently to submit a paper on the topic for a book entitled Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress. The response, upon publication, was immediate and overwhelming.

“I was a bit afraid the headlines would be ‘scientist does stupid research,’ but I stressed it was an educational tool to demonstrate the principal of disease modelling and people got that,” says Dr. Smith?. “Even people who say they hate math could see the point of it. I had high school teachers thanking me. It was very gratifying. It has always been one of my goals to get people more interested in the application of mathematics.”

Dr. Smith? published a zombie paper later that same year for the Canadian Medical Association Journal’s year-end holiday issue. In 2011, he followed that up with a book entitled Braaaiiinnnsss: From Academics to Zombies, in which he invited other academics to use zombies as a fun hook to illustrate their own respective disciplines.

Dr. Smith? has now gone back to the zombie well for a new book, Mathematical Modelling of Zombies, scheduled for release in September by University of Ottawa Press. The book covers topics like differential equations, network theory, probability and statistics, and fuzzy logic for decision making. He says he has tried to keep it fairly accessible, with lots of humour.

Included in the book is a mathematical model by Dr. Smith? that tracks the viral spread of the story of his original math paper through the media. A big Doctor Who fan, he is pleased to note that the book also features a foreword by Andrew Cartmel, a British author and former script editor of Doctor Who.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Dr. Smith? finds himself noticing scientific inconsistencies in the latest zombie movies or TV series. To that end, he has joined the Hollywood Science and Entertainment Exchange, which puts directors and writers in touch with scientists to improve the science in films.

Dr. Smith? doesn’t rule out future zombie projects. “It’s kind of amusing, because every time I think zombies are dead [as potential subject matter], they come back to life.”

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