ZOMBIES AT THE SCIENCE MUSEUM

07 February 2013

By Louise Buckley

lb-science-museum1

Zombies are real. Or so said the Science Museum last week for their latest interactive series of events, ZombieLab. Both myself and Team Tor's Contracts Extraordinnaire, Joh, visited this separately last week. These are our experiences...

Me - Sunday afternoon

One lunch time a couple of weeks ago I was casually browsing the Science Museum website, and I came across their ZombieLaB event. As someone who is very partial to a story with the shambling, brain-munching undead, (after all, we do publish the Walking Dead novels and Alden Bell's amazing The Reapers are the Angels and Exit Kingdom) my immediate reaction was to shout out ‘oh my god, the Science Museum are having a Zombie week!’ and to tell Team Tor and everyone I know, because it sounded awesome. Once I’d roped in a friend to come with me last Sunday, this is what happened:

On arrival, my friend and I decided to go to a talk entitled ‘Diagnosing a Zombie’. The talk was by Dr. Tom Manly, who works at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge. Over the course of the talk, and through bringing in and ‘testing’ a ‘live test subject’, Manly proceeded to outline which functions of a zombie’s brain must still be active in order for it to perform certain tasks. For example, there was a particularly interesting section about stroke victims with ‘unilateral neglect of the left’. These are patients whose right side of the brain is damaged, and are therefore unable to compute what they see on the left side of their vision. When given a sheet of paper and asked to cross out all the small lines on the paper, they could only recognize and cross out the lines on the right hand side. This condition also affects their memory: when asked to describe their house, they could only describe the right hand side. Manly argued that this is why zombies only move in an anti-clockwise direction.

Another interesting part of the talk centred on dopamine; for zombies to desire eating human brains above all other activities, their brains must be actively producing dopamine. Manly used an example of testing on rats to suggest how this would work in zombies. When a test group of rats were given a dopamine stimulator, the reward from the stimulator was so great that they stopped doing any of their other usual activities, including eating and sleeping.

Overall, the talk was very interesting. Manly managed to comically and adeptly move between the make-believe and the real in an engaging and even educating fashion! I certainly hadn’t expected to learn so much about neuroscience and pyschology from a talk that was supposedly about zombies.

But the funniest part of the talk was actually at the end, when a gathering of ‘pro zombie rights’ protestors came in chanting with banners. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any photos in the theatre.

After the talk, my friend and I had hoped to see some of the other talks and events, but got waylaid in the café…

Joh's 'Late Night' at the Science Museum

 

After an epic queue, featuring a smattering of zombie action, once I gained entry to the Zombie Lab Lates on 30th January, I shambled over to the first event that I could find. As it was a drop in I thought it would be good for a laugh for ten minutes and ended up spending a full hour at Zombieoke! Sadly, this was not zombie renditions of pop hits (no Delicious Minds by Elvis Presley for example), instead it was a talking heads discussion or “talkeoke” on zombie related matters, compered by a Science Museum employee and featuring parasite expert Maya Kaushik, a PhD student at Imperial College London.

Some highlights of topics discussed and questions raised included whether zombies are alive and "infected humans" or dead/undead and if they are undead do they become something else and are no longer human. How do you define "death" anyway? What is it that makes us human? As zombies are usually devoid of emotions and things that we consider make us human, is this actually an evolutionary advantage. Can zombies be explained by science or are they a paranormal phenomenon? And as my ever-so-thoughtful boyfriend (his words, not mine) quoting Arthur C. Clarke stated on this topic "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", which was paralleled by a discussion on the Haitian roots of the term zombie (where mystical means or witchcraft were the means of resurrecting animated corpses or Zombi).

zombie-johOf course there was the traditional slow moving zombies VS the running “zombies” from 28 days later (they’re not zombies, they are people infected with the Rage virus, damn it!) debate, with a consensus that come the inevitable zombie apocalypse we’d all much rather be fighting against Romero style shamblers where we’d stand a better chance of survival/getting away. On the topic of parasites causing zombification of their hosts there was a minor discussion on Ophiocordyceps unilateralis – the parasitic fungus which infects ants and essentially drives it’s host to its death, followed by much discussion of the topic of Maya Kaushnik’s PhD thesis - Toxoplasma gondii – a parasite that alters the brain function of rats and has been tenuously suggested to being a possible cause of crazy cat ladies. More on this later.

After this there was another epic queue for The Punk Science Show of the Living Dead. The blurb for the event promised us great things. Explosions and the creation of a zombie live on stage. There were minor explosions created by one of the Science Museum’s pyrotechnic experts using regular household objects, plus “homemade” hydrogen which she was legally not allowed to tell us how to make ourselves so in true Blue Peter style there was some she had made earlier. There was also an attempt to prove videogame players are better prepared for the zombie apocalypse than non-gamers though a thoroughly unscientific case study involving Nerf guns.

Lastly I come to the creation of a zombie live on stage. This was slightly disappointing in that it turned out to be a re-enactment of the modus operandi of our good friend Toxoplasma gondii. In a nutshell this parasite is spread through ingesting particles of cat faeces and urine. Once in rats or mice (the parasite’s primary host), the parasite alters the brain function of the rodent, removing its instinctual fear of felines and making rats or mice sexually attracted to the smell of cat wee. In any case, the removal of the inhibitions towards cats means infected rats and mice are more likely to be ingested by their foe and the parasite reaches its ultimate host, the cat, where it then reproduces and the cycle begins all over again. Apparently up to two thirds of the human population in the UK are also infected by this parasite which has anecdotally been linked to crazy cat ladies and their love of collecting kitties.

 N.B. ZombieLab finished on the 3rd February.