Zombie Apocalypse According to a Chemist, Psychologist, Science Major


Hollywood has tried to make our worst nightmares imaginable for years, but on Wednesday, Jan. 25, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Leah Eller, Assistant Professor of Psychology Scott Mirabile, and senior Chemistry and Biology double major Steven Rees all joined forces to tell the scenarios of a real life zombie apocalypse.

In the first Natural Science and Mathematics Colloquium (NS&M) of the semester, in which not an open seat was to be found, the three departments combined to discuss three main components of a zombie apocalypse and what it would mean for humans: biological plausibility, the chemistry of basic survival needs, and the psychological aspects of survival.

Rees opened the lecture discussing what exactly a zombie virus might biologically look like. Though Rees claimed that we actually have no idea what a zombie virus would look like, through looking back in history, scientists have come closer to finding possibilities.

Italian physician Girolamo Fracastaro first recorded a condition with zombie-like symptoms in 1594, which was rabies. Rees explained the two different types of the rabies virus: furious and paralytic. Furious rabies symptoms include fever, irritability, violence, and salivation while paralytic rabies symptoms include depression, confusion, hallucinations, and disorientation.

But though such symptoms like biting others people and foaming at the mouth, which all lead mostly to death, were recorded, the disease usually is only recorded in Africa, Asia, and South America. Also, human-to-human transmission is highly unlikely.

However, other viruses known to humans, like Ebola viruses could have an epidemic ability to significantly affect the human population. The Ebola virus can cause viral hemorrhagic fever and other serious symptoms. But Rees concluded the virus is not easily transmissible among humans and is mostly in low sanitation areas.

“But what if we were to combine the Ebola virus and furious rabies?” asked Rees. Taking the zombie-like symptoms of furious rabies and the often-fatal Ebola virus, the world could see a rapid third-world spread. However, Rees concluded that even this deadly combination might not exactly be a plausible model for a zombie endemic.

So is there any virus out there that we have to be worried about? The answer to that question, Rees explained, is scarier than one would think. Simple proteins in the brain, with which we are all born, could be the cause. Now these natural proteins aren’t themselves the problem. Prions, or misfolded proteins, can infect our healthy proteins and lead to a serious brain disease called encephalopathy, which has never been survived by a human. The deadly phenomenon can be transmitted sporadically or through inheritance or acquisition. Fortunately, there is no history of an epidemic outbreak and it can take up to six to 18 months to kill its host.

So now that a zombie virus, or something close to it, is biologically possible, what would it take for humans to survive? Eller took the stage next to describe the chemistry of survival.

She started off with the basics: food, shelter, water, and sex. But Eller explained that the main concerns would be food and water once you’ve found shelter either fenced in in a rural setting or high above ground in an urban setting. Our main sources of drinkable water would be from an above ground water source, wells, buckets, rain barrels, and fog collectors. To survive, we would only need about two to four liters of water per day.

But once we have the water, Eller explained, we have to worry about its cleanliness. Fecal matter, inorganic and organic chemicals, and biological agents that can cause disease are all possibilities, and duplicating today’s modern filtration system under such conditions may not be possible. Eller suggests camping strategies like boiling the water and iodine, as well as sand and gravel filtration and carbon filters, though even those strategies aren’t 100 percent effective.

“So now we’re not thirsty anymore, but we’re still hungry,” Eller said. In such strict living conditions, whether it is a rooftop or a fenced in rural setting, Eller explained the basic foods that can be grown and eaten to ensure survival: peanuts, soybeans, and potatoes, all of which have the necessary amino acids needed by our bodies.

So after we find shelter, food, and water, we may consider ourselves lucky to have survived. However, Mirabile has little faith in human survival even after these basic needs have been met.

“I don’t have much hope for you all to make it,” he openly said. After research was done on the extreme conditions humans would face, and looking at anecdotal evidence, Mirabile explained the main consequences of being trapped in a relatively small space with little food and water, and the same people: depression, hostility, insomnia, fatigue, and anxiety.

Also, personality traits make a difference in psychological survival. Mirabile noted the three main categories of personalities that would gauge the chances of survival. The first, “the right stuff” is the category most ideal for survival, when a person is warm, sensitive, work-oriented, and independent. The second and third categories, “the wrong stuff” and “no stuff” both categorize people with low chances of survival. Traits include competitiveness, arrogance, hostility, and verbal aggressiveness. However, none of these traits will necessarily translate over into isolated, confined, and extreme (ICE) conditions. Also, based on research, even if one is able to psychologically survive with “the right stuff,” those would only last for about a 90-day time frame.

So what’s the best possible survival scenario? Mirabile says a survivalist, who is prepared and has a predetermined group to live with, is the most prone to survival.

The jam-packed colloquium, with 152 students in attendance, was well received by the audience. First-years Hannah Hafey and Jessica Farrell both enjoyed Rees’s portion of the presentation most. “Steve’s was most interesting because it’s crazy to think that they could come up with a disease that could cause a zombie apocalypse,” said Hafey. “ It’s actually very frightening!”