August 20, 2010

What Matters During a Zombie Apocalypse

My last two posts have mentioned zombies, and frankly, I want to keep talking about them.  Hey, I have no one to answer to here. There is no Scientifically Accurate and/or Relevant Police scanning the content of this blog to ensure the highest standard of scientific quality. It's just me. So, you know what? For no reason at all, I'm going discuss a hypothetical zombie apocalypse. You can thank me later.

The only upside to a zombie apocalypse will be the survivors' crash course in something called "what really matters."

Let's start with what does not matter when you are being attacked by zombies:
1.  Money
Zombies can't be bribed to not crave your tasty, tasty flesh. They also don't mind if you are completely broke, for you shall taste just as delicious as a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs.

2.  Your career
Zombies do not care if you have a PhD or if you have 20 years of experience in your field, unless that field is ninjitsu or maybe barfighting because only those will make you more difficult to gnaw on.

3.  What car you drive
To zombies, all cars look the same.  The only thing that differentiates them is whether or not there is a tasty human inside it failing miserably to locate and employ the car keys.  They love when this happens.

4.  GPS
Don't worry about street names, addresses, or directions any more.  It doesn't matter where you are, just as long as it is zombie-less.  North and south are no longer helpful; your directions are reduced to toward zombies and away from zombies.

Now, on to what will most definitely matter during zombie survival:
1.  Music
You're going to need a variety of playlists to get you through your day:
-fighting zombie playlist (heavy metal, most likely)
-someone got bitten playlist (really dramatic opera-style stuff)
-treating your wounds playlist (spa-style relaxation)
-finding the cure playlist (upbeat montage music)

Especially if you are alone, you're going to want to hear the voices of non-zombies to soothe your tired soul.  Music you once thought you loathed will make you cry tears of joy and remind you of simpler times when things were so great, you had the energy to hate something so simple as a 3-minute collection of sounds.

2.  Can openers
You have not felt hopelessness and despair until you have faced extreme hunger, a can of food, and no can opener. You're going to subside almost entirely on canned food, so I suggest finding a good can opener and fashioning a holster for it, so you're never without. I'm serious. This is important.

3.  A love of all forms of sport
You have to use any and all varieties of sporting equipment to kill zombies: bats, tennis rackets, golf clubs.  Guns run out of ammo.  Hockey sticks do not.

4.  Any kind of soap: dish soap, hand soap, face soap
You're surely going to want some soap to wash off the blood that results from zombie altercations.  I'm pretty sure that they spray blood when you beat them with blunt objects.  You may also want to wear sunglasses or goggles for this reason.

Things that I'm not sure will matter:
1.  Social skills
Loners might be just as successful as social butterflies when it comes to surviving.  Groups might attract more zombies, so perhaps flying solo will be better.  But helping each other is good too... and yet your group is only as strong as your weakest link.  Like I said before, I'm just not sure.

2.  Cellular Phones
I'm sure cell phones will be useful during the zombie apocalypse if they work, but I'm not convinced cellular networks will last long without upkeep.  Zombies don't repair cell towers with any kind of regularity.

3. A Keen Fashion Sense
It won't help you survive a zombie mob attack, but it might improve morale in the long run if you are wearing the season's latest fashions and not ripped, stained sweatpants.  Depends on your personality, I suppose.

So perhaps the moral of this story, if there is one at all, is that you shouldn't spend too much energy worrying about things unless they will matter during the zombie apocalypse... or something like that.

August 19, 2010

Zombie Fungus

While we're talking about zombie-ish natural phenomena, let's talk about cordyceps (chord-ee-seps). They are the coolest and most terrifying fungus I have ever heard of. I think of fungus as the friendly green stuff that eats my neglected bread. But they are so much more than that.

Cordyceps are much more aggressive than bread mold. This fungus infects living things--namely, insects. Spores get inside the body of, say, an ant, and grow and take over the ant's body. What's really amazing... and creepy... is that the fungus actually infects the brain of the ant and influences its behavior to its benefit. The fungus wants* to infect as many other ants as possible, so to increase its chances of spreading, it causes the ant to seek higher ground. I'm sorry, but I don't know how it does this. It must produce some chemical that acts as a neurochemical in the ant's brain. Perhaps it messes with the ant's sense of what is up or down.

*When I say "wants," I mean it in sort of a general sense. The fungus doesn't "want" anything, really. It just has evolved traits that benefit its spread and continued survival.  

What I find even more amazing than this bizarre fungus's ability to change ant behavior is that if another ant in the colony notices an ant who is infected with the fungus, the healthy ant carries the sick ant far, far away from the colony in hopes to stop the spread of the fungus. How on earth does the ant know to do that? People in zombie movies never know to do that:

"Oh, no. You were bitten by a zombie. That's too bad. Oh, well. I'm sure you'll be just fine. We won't abandon our wounded. We'll nurse you back to health and keep you around us in this confined space. Everything is going to be okay."

~5 hours later~

"Yeesh, you look terrible. Your eyes look sort of vacant and lifeless. Hey, why'd you bite me?"

So it's official: ants are smarter than people in zombie movies.

Enough of this.  You have to see it for yourself.

August 03, 2010

Watch Out for Prions (and perhaps zombies)

I saw Zombieland (finally) this week. I'm rather fond of zombie movies. I suppose I like the science-fiction-y nature of them, with their obligatory explanation of how the virus arose that made everyone become undead eating machines. I also like them because they don't haunt me the way other scary movies do. Ghostly movies really mess me up because late at night, in the dark, when I'm trying to fall asleep, as unscientific as it may sound, I'm far more worried about ghosts than I am about zombies.

In Zombieland they attribute the zombie outbreak to a different form of mad cow disease, presumably called mad human disease. He explained that the virus mutated and spread among humans to create an army of hungry, bloody automatons.

Only one teency, tiny, ever-so-insignificant problem with this: mad cow disease is not caused by a virus. I forgive the incredibly talented team that made Zombieland, because it's not that important a detail, and it's one that perhaps no one but me really cares about. But it's no less untrue.

Get ready to add to your list of "things that make you sick." Yes, you should have a list. Mad cow disease is caused by something called a prion.

A prion is a rogue protein that ruins everything.

The end.

Okay, I'll keep going.

Prions are crazed proteins that hate other proteins.

The end.

Okay, okay.

Here's what they do: A prion

bumps into a happy, functional, well-adjusted protein,

and the prion causes the normal protein to change shape and become a useless, ugly, evil protein. (Notice my use of objective, rational descriptions.  I'm not biased at all.)
To make things even worse, these recently-made-evil proteins then go around and bump into more normal proteins and make them evil too. So I can see why Zombieland chose mad cow as the progenitor disease. On the molecular level, it sounds a lot like a zombie.

So this is a pretty bad situation by itself, but I haven't told you where prions are causing all the havoc: in animals' BRAINS (which is also zombie relevant...weird).

Prions eventually turn the brain into a spongy, holy, somewhat-Swiss-cheese-like mess. While holes in earlobes can be fashionable, holes in the brain are generally not advantageous. Animals affected with a prion disease slowly lose motor control and balance, followed soon by changes in higher brain functions like memory, decision-making, personality, and behavior. Again, pretty zombie-ish, except for the amount of time this takes. From zombie bite to zombie, you have a matter of hours, but this process of prions making moosh out of your brain takes years or even decades.

So how do you get a disease like this?   You have to eat some brains!

If you ingest prions, they'll find their way to your brain and do what they do best. So if you don't want this to happen, simply avoid eating any neural tissue. Easy, right? Well, it's easy as long as the people who sell you your ground beef didn't accidentally grind up some brains in there too. Buyer beware, I guess.

There were (and I'm sure there still are) cultures in which eating brains is routine, even human brains. A tribe in Papua New Guinea had a tradition in which you eat your deceased family members--yes, even their brains. Sounds gross to me, but it was normal for them. They'd been doing it for generations, but it became a problem when, as you've probably guessed, there was an occurrence of a prion-related disease called Kuru, which might as well be called Mad Human Disease. People were exhibiting all the symptoms of a prion disease, and there was nothing to stop its spread, because when the person died, more relatives would eat their infected brains and further spread the disease. It was bad news all around. It took some outside involvement from anthropologists, medical researchers, missionaries, and the Australian government to end the practice of the cannibal funeral in New Guinea. But because Kuru can take decades to manifest, it was another 40 years before new cases stopped being reported.

So while prions sound very zombie-esque, they're a long way from reanimating dead tissue and causing mostly-brain-dead corpses to run around craving flesh.  Like I said before, I'm more worried about ghosts.