To Start a Club
It was a dream of mine, when I first arrived at WKU, to start a club. Once I inherited the ACM Student Chapter, though, that dream seemed much less important, and it was revisited only in casual conversation over lunch.
One idea that kept coming up in these chats was to start a club around WKU’s freely available Building Emergency Action Plans. These maps are, in accordance with safety codes, scattered throughout the campus, screaming “You are here” and laying out which way to go in the event of a fire or tornado.
Should we scan them in, developing image processors that spat out navigable 3D-models? Or should we start up a role playing campaign of Dungeons and Dragons, where the Game Master takes these action plans and maps out our quest? And with that, the floodgates of sarcastic ideas opened.
Then one of them stuck.
In moments, my group of friends and I went from having a laugh in the campus food court to falling silent. The realization that this idea could actually work was sinking in: Zombies.
Brains… Or Something Like That
We were going to call this new club “ZAP—Zombie Action Planners,” and the idea was simple.
We would form a committee and work out what actions should be carried out under different types of zombie apocalypses. It should be as formal as possible, a serious contrast to the ridiculous idea in the first place, but a necessity if we were ever to convince the school to post our “action plans” in public.
As entertaining as it was, this club faced a roadblock that we kept overlooking—no such apocalypse had ever happened.
Some stories have zombies that are fast. Some have dead that are brought back to life. Some have viruses. It seemed like the devils in the details were plaguing us just as much as the undead were plaguing the living in our discussions, and without a real-life example to compare to, which should we choose?
So, to massage these details, we needed to develop a model that (1) was simple enough to easily describe to new members, (2) covered all possible “species” of zombie, and (3) was minimal, so as to introduce as few assumptions as possible.
Things of Nightmares
We agreed, after hours of debate, on an unsettling, terrifying Standard Zombie Model:
—The infection is spread by some physical means.
—A symptom is loss of conscious control over the body.
—A symptom is behavior that leads to whatever physical means spreads the infection.
—The infection improves the physical strength needed for that behavior.
—The incubation period of the infection, that is, the time after contracting the disease but before symptoms appear, is “smart.”
—The disease emerges as though it somehow monitors the social interactions of the host, coming out of incubation at the most opportune time. For example, while in a crowded room.
—The symptoms appear quickly, in a seconds-long, painful transformation.
—There is no cure.
We never moved the discussion much past that. We had come up with a worse case scenario, and it frightened us. Not because our “Standard Zombie” might come to life, but because it was already all too real.
All of its pieces were inspired by real diseases. Even the detail about “smart” incubation was inspired by viruses that spread before symptoms begin to show. The “waiting until the right moment” was simply taking that behavior to the limit.
It is only now, in light of the recent conversation concerning the Ebola outbreak, that I mention this hypothetical apocalypse again.
Power, and Weakness, in Numbers
Pierce and Merletti, in a 2006 editorial on epidemiology, ask for others in their field to embrace techniques from Complex Systems in their models. At that time, it had already made its way through “physics, cosmology, chemistry, geography, climate research, zoology, biology, evolutionary biology, cell biology, neuroscience, clinical medicine, management, and economics.” It also just made sense, since Complex Systems is an umbrella term that includes Network Science.
What better way to represent how disease spreads throughout a population than by simulating it literally spreading throughout a massive social network? Although the flu does not spread as quickly as last week’s favorite cat video, it has still become part of our language and culture to call such quick-spreading content “viral.” So, of course, this application of Network Science only seems natural.
In Pierce and Merletti’s terminology, our Standard Zombie Model fell under the category of well-researched communicable diseases, that is, those that are contagious. At the time, researchers were asking, “does virus A cause disease B?” Now, even in introductory Complex Systems courses, it is typical to follow the authors’ advice, to understand how the social network would respond, as a whole, to the disease.
It is by running such analyses that we begin to pinpoint our weaknesses. Where is it most important to store our limited supplies of flu vaccines? Where would Ebola hit if it wanted to most cripple our economy? Is it better to fight the zombies head on, or to hide until help arrives?
So, perhaps, if I ever succeed in launching a club called “ZAP,” we should begin by doing just what epidemiologists do with Systems—try to understand how the complex, social network would respond, collectively, to a zombie apocalypse.
One Last Note
Below is an email. Once this post goes live in the morning, I will be sending it to the head of WKU’s Biology Department. That is to say, I have skin in this game. Feel free, if you are a college student, to do the same.
I am contacting you to propose a new student organization inspired by a mix of epidemiology and emergency action planning. If you can, I could use your help spreading the word to interested students and locating a faculty sponsor for the group.
An outline of the club follows:
ZAP (Zombie Action Planners)
Objective: Learn the skills necessary to model and prepare for worst-case scenarios by developing “Building Emergency Action Plans” for the event of a Zombie Apocalypse.
Rationale: Zombies are well-ingrained into our popular culture, but slight variations in their definitions will force us to first develop a precise “Standard Model.” Furthermore, zombies are both sarcastic enough and timeless to allow the conversation to continue throughout semesters. In contrast, a conversation about Ebola can be uncomfortable for students to talk openly about and will decrease in popularity after the current outbreak passes.
Meetings: We will meet regularly and in a formal committee fashion. This high level of formality purposefully contrasts the ridiculousness of our subject matter: it will be a necessity if we ever hope to have our action plans posted in public.
Thank you for your time. If you have questions or need additional info, feel free to contact me at or .