We partnered with AMC and the Canvas Network to create a free online class (MOOC) based on "The Walking Dead." Each week, we will use clips and stories from the series to teach everything from the hierarchy of needs in a disaster to the physiology of stress to population modeling in extinction — even the physics of a walker headshot splatter! (To give you an idea, in this Live Science article we talk about the math of birth rates, zombie vaccines, etc.) Note: Though we'd love to talk Season 4 today, we can't! We haven't even seen it. Our class won't discuss concepts specific to Season 4 until after the episode in which they're introduced airs. Happy to talk seasons 1-3! We are: Joanne Christopherson, Ph.D., lecturer, social sciences Michael Dennin, Ph.D., professor, physics and astronomy Zuzana Bic, Dr.PH, MUDr., lecurer, public health Sarah Eichhorn, Ph.D., lecturer, assistant vice chair for undergraduate studies in mathematics Proof: AMC, Canvas, Wired

Ask us anything!

Edit: We had a blast! (Here is an action shot.) Thank you so much for your fantastic questions. I think we're all ready for the zombie apocalypse. If you've got more questions, come to our free class on canvas.net, starting Oct. 14.

Comments: 221 • Responses: 33  • Date: 

Darthmutton31 karma

On the subject of head splatter:If the zombies are dead, why is there head splatter? Shouldn't their bodies be just rotting flesh with no circulatory system with what is remaining of their blood pooling at their lower extremities?

mdennin26 karma

This is one of the more interesting physics question about dead zombies. Clearly, with no heart beat, there is no blood pressure, and there is no head splatter - and yes, their blood pools. However, zombies are clearly "dead" but with some biological function or they would not even move! So, the real question to me is how much blood pressure are they generating? My impression is that the blood splatter is LESS than one expects from a person, so there blood pressure is there, but somehow less than normal. Also, they often have pretty gaping wounds with no squirting blood, which suggests really low blood pressure.

mreichmo8 karma

Maybe high stress levels raise zombies' blood pressure and, subsequently, their splatter radius. They don't have any leisure activities.

Calculated11 karma

From my understanding from the CDC episode in season 1 the new zombie organ created in the brain continues to send signals to organs for them to pseudo function via the nervous system. So they don't decay as fast as you would think if you left a body out in the sun for 6 months. But you start to see those anorexic zombies who haven't been gorging on people and appear very frail. But I am probably way off on my speculation.

SarahEichhorn7 karma

Good thoughts. The walkers do indeed seem to still be taking in nutrition and having some sort of circulatory system functionality. At several points we do see a human become a zombie and then the zombie head get bashed. The zombie heads do seem very squishy and so there must be some sort of rapid decay of the cranium after being bitten by a zombie.

Carbo_Adamas18 karma

If any of you have an emergency bug out bag, whats in it?

SarahEichhorn14 karma

I live in earthquake country, so I do have a set of supplies ready. I definitely have food, water, crank flashlight, crank radio, sturdy shoes, work gloves and a first aide kit. The same things would likely be useful for a hypothetical zombie apocalypse. Our public health person is a big fan of garlic and says it is great as a bug deterrent and has lots of medicinal uses. That might be a good, but smelly addition to such a kit.

RangerHermes15 karma

UCI alum here! Where do you think would be the most secure place on campus in the event of a zombie outbreak? Thanks for holding a great AMA!

SarahEichhorn17 karma

I would grab lots of food from the dorm cafeteria and head to those secret tunnels under the campus.

happycowsmmmcheese12 karma

Hello!!! I am so excited to make it to this AMA! I'm signed up for the class, so this is an exciting sneak peek. Two questions for you...

1) [for all the Professors here today] What were your most favorite and least favorite moments from seasons 1-3? Why?

2) In the event of a real-life catastrophe of similar magnitude, what do you think the most likely cause would actually be? Do you think that an apocalypse would be more likely to be caused by something biological, nuclear, geological, or something else? And do you think an event so powerful would leave any survivors at all?

SarahEichhorn8 karma

1) As a mathematician, I was super excited in Season 1 when Rick says "Someone needs to do the math... and solve this thing". I was super delighted by this. I was bummed when Milton died. I wanted to see more of his experiments and their results. 2) Very interesting question: I think all of these are possibilities. There are diseases that are actually much more virulent than the zombie disease. Zombies have to bite, which is difficult. Many diseases spread much more easily. I think there are enough special bunkers and such that most scenarios would have at least some survivors.

ProfessorGoogle11 karma

I am a huge walking dead fan, watched every episode multiple times, so I am very excited for this AMA.

Which scenario's in the show this show have the most educational value, which ones do you tend to focus on the most in your course?

SarahEichhorn7 karma

For the mathematics module, we will be focusing on the walker disease as a whole. How does it spread? Is there any hope for the humans? What can we do to stop the spread of the disease? The Walking Dead show provides a great opportunity to see how mathematics is useful for studying disease spread.

Salacious-10 karma

If the 4 of you who are currently answering questions were trapped in an actual zombie apocalypse together and had to get out of Atlanta, who would be the first to die, and why?

SarahEichhorn17 karma

We actually tackle this exact question in a Roundtable Discussion in the course! I personally think our public health person would be the first to die because she would try to take the zombie's temperature. Our Social Scientist would be too fascinated by the zombie society and would try to study it. I think the physicist and myself would fare pretty well.

mdennin10 karma

An excellent argument except for being clear at the end of the post that the physicist has access to better zombie weapons. The mathematician only has pencils! So, at the end, it is the physicist.

SarahEichhorn10 karma

Yes, but the physicist at some point would try to experiment with stuff and make their weapons more powerful. It is only a matter of time before one of the weapons failed. The mathematician has no delusions of weapons proficiency and would be safely hid away from the zombies.

Knirkefri6 karma

I want to be the kind of Ph.D-fellow that you are. I just get to read books. And write. How soon would a comparative literature Ph.D. die?

SarahEichhorn8 karma

I would have to say the comparative lit academic would die after public health and social science, but before the mathematician and the physicist. :)

ClearEyesxFullHearts9 karma

If a zombie apocalypse happened, where you be the first place you would go?

ZuzanaBic6 karma

I think the first would be to go the farm, BUT based on how fast the disease is spreading I would try to move as fast and as far as possible - maybe the island and because I am public health professional - I will run to our public health department - all public health professionals will be there with their preparedness bags.

SarahEichhorn7 karma

I would go to a small private island. I don't have one available off hand, but hopefully could find something like this.

Syngomes8 karma

Why do you think that there are different zombie "themes"? I like to think that different cultures have different social anxieties which lead to the various types of zombies.

SarahEichhorn4 karma

Interesting thought. There are a lot of different portrayals of zombies: slow, fast, vicious, mindless, etc. I think there are many things that makes zombies interesting and some of these may be based on culture and social anxieties. - The shear numbers of zombies are overwhelming and some cultures may have concerns about large mobs and such. - With zombies you often end up with scenarios where people have to kill family and friends. This is obviously of concern. - Zombies are also scary because any character could hypothetically become one. There are lots of diseases that are scary in that it can cause you to change your behavior. Alzheimer's is scary for many due to the fact that you may no longer behave as you usually do.

khleesi8 karma

Do you get to meet the cast?

ZuzanaBic6 karma

Yes, we got to meet a few members of the cast and will be sharing some exclusive actor interview footage in the course.

happycowsmmmcheese3 karma

Are you able to give us any details or hints about which actors, or do we have to wait for the class?

SarahEichhorn3 karma

We also got to meet Scott Gimple, the executive producer.

NewColor8 karma

What item would you want the most during a zombie apocalypse? I would want some toilet paper

SarahEichhorn5 karma

I would love hot running water, but if I could only have a physical item I would like to have a bottle of Purell. They always look a bit grimy on the show.

NeoNemesis7 karma

Is is possible for humans to become Zombies? If yes would they be similar to the ones' depicted by "The Walking Dead?"

SarahEichhorn12 karma

In the real world, no. However, there are many diseases with similar pathologies to the Walking Dead disease. The rabies virus attacks similar parts of the brain.

MarcusH260517 karma

What is your favourite walker from the series???

SarahEichhorn9 karma

I really like the sweet looking little girl from the very beginning of the show. She had that perfect creepy look.

Engrish__Prease7 karma

Curious, how many people have registered so far?

SarahEichhorn8 karma

We don't have an exact number, but it is tens of thousands from all over the world.

pribnow7 karma

Ok, it appears that zombies routinely are cut open have exposed tissue and what not.

In the event of a zombie invasion, lets assume at t=0, the number of new zombies being made is negligible or zero. How long would it take for bacteria to destroy/disintegrate a zombie body that has a gaping hole in its' chest?

SarahEichhorn4 karma

Totally depends on the bacteria and the environmental conditions. The disintegration should be similar to that we would see if an animal died and was left out. Usually, scavengers get to the body well before we can have a complete bacterial decomposition.

Engrish__Prease7 karma

If SHTF and you guys had to bug out, which character from the show would you most want on your team and why?

UCIDrChris12 karma

Daryl!!! Who else??

SarahEichhorn6 karma

Michonne. She is a smart girl who can take care of herself. Her chained zombies as camouflage is absolutely genius.

Zentactics7 karma

Do you feel that the zombies exhibit herd / pack social behavior? Does it resemble any known species?

SarahEichhorn7 karma

The Walking Dead zombies definitely seem to coordinate their movement. They are much more effective as hunters when they work together in a pack. Lots of animal species work together to coordinate their actions. In the course, we will actually talk about how the zombies are like fish schools in their coordinated movement.

skinnyowner6 karma

If everyone already has the disease in them why do zombie bites turn people?

SarahEichhorn7 karma

Good question. There are many examples of systems where enzymes activate proteins. It could be the zombie bite passes along a particular enzyme which activates some bad zombie proteins which do bad things to the body.

ManofSteelComplex6 karma

Anteater alumni here... ZOT ZOT! Please tell me you are going to be talking about how TWD is basically a case study in Locke's State of Nature theory?

UCIDrChris5 karma

Actually, we are going to talk about Thomas Hobbes' theory - life is nasty, brutish and short.

SarahEichhorn2 karma

Glad to see an anteater alum in the class! Hope you enjoy the course!

newsfish6 karma

Have you read the comics? Did AMC approach you? Are you on their payroll?

SarahEichhorn7 karma

For the AMC questions, this project was actually started by Instructure, the company which managed the Canvas Network system on which the course is being hosted. We are not getting paid by AMC or Instructure, and no money has changed hands. All the course development is done voluntarily and we are just excited to be able to use the hook of the show to get fans engaged with some cool academic content.

Dortmundia6 karma

My question deals with the "head shots" of the show. It seems as though any time a brain is struck, immediate death occurs. People have suffered traumatic brain injuries in the real world without any loss of motor function. Why is it that any injury to a brain means imminent death and loss of motor control regardless of what portion of the brain was struck?

Have any theories? Just a simplification for the show to run smoothly?

mdennin8 karma

It really shows an interesting feature of zombie biology. We already know something is strange with their blood flow and pressure (see other thread). Also, their brains are clearly not functioning as our live brains function. Here is one possibility. Our brain is clearly partitioned to some degree, so damage to one part does not shut down everything. Other systems can be significantly more integrated, where damage to a single part wipes out the system. Perhaps, this is what happens to a zombie brain and produces a very low functioning life form. Of course, it does also make the show easier to run :)!

SarahEichhorn9 karma

The show never says exactly what part of the brain must be damaged to kill the walkers. We do see that the zombie heads seem to be much more elastic than normal human heads. It could be they are elastic enough that when you smash part of the head, it compresses and damages whatever that key area of the brain is to kill the zombie.

chiau_yee6 karma

Huge fan of walking dead and the whole zombie genre. The question that has been troubling me for so long is... Why do zombies never finish their meals? If they eat their entire catch, then there would be less bodies that would turn, therefore less zombies, which would mean a much smaller epidemic that would be easier to contain.

SarahEichhorn6 karma

Maybe they are watching their figures. :)

The zombies tend to move slowly. It may be they just don't need many calories. Also, they are not that bright so may not have a good sense of taking full advantage of resources.

michelekraus6 karma

There was a scene in Season 1 (I think) where there was a helicopter that flew over Atlanta and the zombies seemed to notice it and start off in that direction. Do you think that the zombies are heading in a particular direction, with a sort of hive mentality, perhaps strengthened, or even started by that incident?

SarahEichhorn5 karma

Yes, I think the zombies definitely seem to have some sort of hive behavior. We frequently see the walkers moving in a group cohesively. They tend to benefit by hunting in a group rather than individually. Many real animal species have similar group dynamics from which the members benefit.

michelekraus3 karma

What about 'learning'? One thing is that animals tend to learn by watching or by trying over and over to do something. I think the scary thing would be if the zombies learned to turn doorknobs, undo latches, climb ladders...so far, it seems they are not able to do that. Do you think our Walking Dead zombies are capable of 'learning behavior'?

SarahEichhorn3 karma

First off, as a teacher, I am definitely not volunteering to teach a class of zombies! Many animals have ingrained behaviors that they are born knowing how to do and do not have to learn. My guess is that the zombies probably have a set of such behaviors, some of which may be remembered from their human lives. On TWD, we have no yet seen any examples of zombies observing something or doing trial and error and acquiring new skills. I think this would be particularly terrifying if they did.

lucyreid116 karma

Does anybody have some insight into the physiology behind the zombie disease. When the guy in the CDC explained what they had found occurs when one turns is that the brainstem comes back to life but the majority of the cortex does not. How can the zombies be as functional with only a working brainstem. So many areas of the cortex are needed for the integration of information just to keep the visual, auditory, and voluntary skeletal muscle contraction systems going.

In addition to this why is that the significant loss of brain function drives them to become carnivores, and cannibals at that. If they are purely eating to sustain life why do we not see them eating plants, inanimate objects, etc.

Maybe I am BioMed student-ing too far into this but if anybody has an explanation it would be wicked!

SarahEichhorn6 karma

Unfortunately, since the walker disease is fictional some of these details are left a little fuzzy. In one of the modules of our course, Dr. Andrea Nicholas, a UCI neurobiologist, will discuss the disease from a brain perspective. She does point out how similar the zombie disease is to rabies. It affects similar parts of the brain.

There are lots of cases where humans have brain damage and other parts of the brain then pick up some of the damaged functionality. It is possible something similar would work with the zombies.

RamsesThePigeon4 karma


SarahEichhorn7 karma

Everything tastes good honey roasted!

lucdigital4 karma

One of the characters I identify with is/was Milton, for his experiments/observations. I've often thought that the Walkers demonstrate 'positive' reactions to some sensory input (loud sounds, unmasked smell of live humans) and neutral reactions to others (they don't seem to be attracted to color or movement in the absence of loud sound and ignore humans masked with Walker gore). If I were in a somewhat safe/stable situation in that world, I'd try to investigate deterrents/repellents, like sounds of a certain pitch (dog whistles, anyone?) or particular scents (wouldn't it be great if Walkers were repulsed by vanilla, or coffee? ;) Any discussions planned along these lines?

SarahEichhorn4 karma

Milton is actually one of my favorite characters! He seemed to have some interesting simple experiments to study the disease. In the course, we will be discussing ideas for studying the zombie disease and for finding possible interventions to stop the disease spread.

EpicnessStartsHere4 karma

Is filming hard? Do you have to take multiple takes before finishing?

SarahEichhorn5 karma

Yes, surprisingly hard. I am very used to talking in front of a class full of students, but it is much different talking to a camera with no audience. I find it is much harder to be natural without an audience. I also tend to speak really quickly and eventually am talking faster than I am thinking. I definitely require multiple takes for videos. I was surprised at how hard this was.

Some of the other instructors are very good on camera and I am super jealous of how easily they film stuff. Prof. Dennin from Physics has experience on TV on the show "Ancient Alliens". I have jokingly said that next time I co-teach a course I only want to work with tongue-tied simpletons!

firemonkey13134 karma


SarahEichhorn7 karma


mreichmo7 karma

Now here's somebody who knows where her towel is

SarahEichhorn5 karma


Gentleman_Basterd3 karma

Given that biting is not the most effective method of spreading disease, how long do you think it would take to have the zombies take over all of civilization. A.K.A. how long was Rick in that hospital bed?

SarahEichhorn7 karma

In the course, we actually present a model which can predict exactly this sort of thing. I ran one scenario with a population of 10,000 humans and 1 human. I used a fairly high contact rate for spreading the disease when humans come in contact with zombies. Under the scenario, I found the entire human population was wiped out in roughly 3 weeks.

There are lots of factors that can be modified in such models, but I think Rick could have been in the coma for anywhere from days to weeks and still have it be realistic that disease could have spread so quickly.

GMbluth730 karma

Hey! I'm actually going to be on campus in about an hour. Are you all at UCI right now?

SarahEichhorn5 karma

We are indeed on campus. We are in our secret bunker and would hate to give out our location because we would hate to have our great locale overrun in the event of a zombie apocalypse.