Neil deGrasse Tyson and Robert Kirkman Talk the Science of The Walking Dead

Saturday, 12 November 2016 - 12:23PM
Weird Science
Saturday, 12 November 2016 - 12:23PM
Neil deGrasse Tyson and Robert Kirkman Talk the Science of The Walking Dead
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Astrophysicist and educator Neil deGrasse Tyson is known for providing a scientific analysis of all the latest science-fiction films and TV shows. In the past, he's talked about the science of Star Wars, Star Trek, Interstellar, The Martian, superhero franchises, and countless other popular sci-fi movies and TV series. This week, he spoke on one of the most watched science-fiction properties currently on air - The Walking Dead. 

Though Tyson's own field of study relates very little to the idea of zombies, he was able to bring in an anthropologist and a medical science expert on this latest episode of Star Talk to make up for it. Jeffrey Mantz, anthropologist and Program Director/Human Subjects Research Officer at the National Science Foundation, offered his insight throughout the episode, and "Dr. Zombie" himself, Dr. Steve Schlozman was also called in to relay his analysis on the physiological changes that would occur at zombification. Likewise, Tyson also interviewed the creator of The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman, to tie the science back to the fiction. All of this made for an intensely interesting episode of Dr. Tyson's radio show, and some of the most intriguing facts from the broadcast are listed below.  

The scientific name for a reanimated corpse is a "revenant corpse."

Neil is surprised to learn that there is a technical term for someone who comes back to life (3:05).


If civilization fell, Mantz says anthropologists believe humans would be less inclined to kill and harm one another than The Walking Dead suggests.

However, he also mentioned that our chances of destroying one another go up if resources are scarce or if value is placed on them - things that would undoubtedly occur in a zombie apocalypse (or any apocalypse for that matter) (9:10).

Mantz also commented on how our technologically advanced society could be described as "post-human."

Anthropologically speaking, our dependency on smartphones and other modern pieces of technology have made us something totally different than our ancestors. Meaning, all of that zombie fiction meant as social commentary and satire about newer generations makes sense in more ways than one (14:30).

Kirkman describes how the Governor is a version of Rick Grimes.

Though this comparison has been made before, it's still interesting to hear Kirkman describe how the Governor was intended to show the audience what Rick would have been like if something bad would have happened to Carl (25:13).  

Dr. Schlozman relates the physiological/medical changes that take place in the human body at the point of zombification.

The medical Doctor and author of The Zombie Autopsies describes how a zombie would have no frontal lobes (it has no complex thought), and would undergo changes to the ventral medial hypothalamus (it's crazy hungry). He also compares the zombie virus to rabies, as they both require certain proteins to continue production for muscle movement (31:15).

There's an equation to understanding the zombie apocalypse.

(bN)(S/N)Z = bSZ.  b is the risk of transmission; N is the total human population; S is the number of people susceptible; Z is for zombies. The outcome of the equation essentially shows there can be no equilibrium, and that the zombies will win. Related to this equation is the ratio of dead to living: 14 to 1 (37:25).

Most Americans feel like they have a good chance of surviving the apocalypse.

1000 respondents took a survey of how they would fare during the zombie apocalypse; 11% think they'd die early; 42% said they'd do as well as everybody else; 33 % said they'd outlast everybody else (40:05).

Zombies could solve the energy crisis.

If we had zombies, Neil says we could use them on something like a giant hamster wheel to supply us with unlimited clean energy (44:25).

Scientifically illiterate world leaders are scarier than The Walking Dead.

In the final portion of the show, Neil relates his biggest fear is scientifically illiterate world leaders. As science has been protecting the future of the human species since it's invention, the consequences of ignoring it could be catastrophic (46:00).

Zombies are obviously ingrained in American culture, and at this particular moment in history, there's no doubt that The Walking Dead is the pinnacle of mankind's obsession with reanimated corpses. Tyson and the scientists he consults in this episode of Star Talk do an excellent job of relating fascinating information concerning the science of this obsession. The intersection of science and science-fiction is one of the most interesting places to be, and thankfully there are scientists like Dr. Tyson out there willing to bridge the gap (or at the very least, to explain how wide that gap is in metric units).
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