Zombie Science

Are you prepared for the zombie apocalypse? Zombiologist Dr Ken Howe joins forces with the NI Science Festival to equip Northern Ireland for the inevitable

It seems safe to infer that Zombie Science in the suitably Gothic Black Box in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter isn't going to be in the Royal Society Christmas Lecture mould.
 
To aficionados of what organisers categorise, rather cutely, as 'zombiology', this hour-long contribution to the inaugural NI Science Festival is a spoof lecture based, in part, on hard fact. The modules that prepares us for an imminent attack from the living dead – a kind of zombie apocalypse – are, in fact, all based on legitimate neuro-science.
 
Zombiologist Dr Ken Howe – who comes across as more stand-up comedian than nerdy professor – kicks off by introducing the department at his workplace where they study zombies, the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies, with the interesting if not totally plausible acronym ZITS. Then it is on to the mental arithmetic tests, more terrifying to those of us who took the 11-plus in the dark ages than the slow-moving monsters we are all here to learn about
 
Having established that most of us have brains, and that these working brains react differently to different intellectual tasks, we tackle ways in which we can avert zombie-related disasters. Howe's enthusiastic manner here recalls 1970s ITV children's show, Michael Bentine's Potty Time – the majority of today's audience might be made up of adults, but we are all big kids at heart really.
 
Zombie literature dates back at least to the early 19th century. The poet Robert Southey used the word zombi (sic) in 1819, the first recorded example of the word, to mean a combination of deity and magic in his History of Brazil. The term came over time to mean the life force leaving the body, therefore the un-dead and antecedents naturally include Bela Lugosi's 1940s movie White Zombie, in which he plays an evil Haitian voodoo priest who zombifies a young woman.
 
The defining modern zombie movie is, of course, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), while comic book fans will also flag up Northern Ireland's own addition to the lexicon, namely Zombies Hi, from the Derry-based Uproar Comics.
 
Zombies today may be less interesting than some of their literary antecedents. Yes, they chase victims down the street, fleshy strands flapping off their torsos, with the aim of eating their brains without too much voodoo, but they have become so ubiquitous in modern culture that they have lost some of their mystery and are, therefore, less frightening. Take the zombies in Shaun of the Dead, for example. A night out on the tiles in any UK town or city proffers much scarier scenes.
 
Howe takes us through aspects of brain function that can be accessed by entertaining reference to the behavioural tics of our zombie foes, and teaches us other fascinating facts. We hear about one Phineas Gogg, who was accidentally impaled on a piece of rather thick metal piping. Amazingly, he survived, but his behaviour thereafter changed from placid to aggressive overnight. Apparently, the area of the brain that controls our moral sense – the amygdala – had been affected. 
 
We move onto appetite control, and the hypothalmus that controls it. Amusingly, when Howe asks the audience how we know when we were full, someone says, 'When I throw up.' Rather, if our brains are reining in our appetites, we get the munchies, for which the scientific term is 'hyperphagia'.
 
Asked how we might turn the zombies' appetites and desire to chomp on human brains against them, the audience deliver some good suggestions. Most involve more bloodshed and pitting zombie against zombie, but Howe's institute advises directing zombies towards queues of Justin Bieber fans. (Everybody's happy.) Then we examine the zombies' lurching gait and consider how our spatial sense works as a boy from the audience tests out how limiting one's sight alters the human ability to spot the known position of a sponge on a stick in order to strike it.
 
The best sections of the lecture involve top tips on how to avoid the zombie apocalypse, the handy hints we need in our troubled times. So now I know I have to run in a crazy line to foil zombies, or simply to run away fast; that I need to wear a protective suit to ward off their bites and saliva, to pause on the stairs between two zombie threats, and so on. 
 
Having considered other aspects of zombie behaviour in order to learn about the human brain, we stop for some lateral thinking. Alhough we clearly enjoy outdoing the enemy, however, we were asked to remember that zombies were once human too and might be reformed in the end.
 
The inaugural NI Science Festival runs until March 1 in venues across Belfast and elsewhere, and has some events scheduled that might tempt children and grown-ups out of the their living rooms and away from their zombie-based films and television programmes.
 
Anybody in the vicinity of BBC Northern Ireland's Blackstaff Studios might usefully venture inside between Thursday and Saturday coming for a range of events from a guide to weather presenting and its technology to Guess Who? forensics with the PSNI, or be an astronomer for the night with Mark Thompson. There is also gastro science, demonstrating the chemistry behind tiramisu at the James Street South Cookery School on February 26, and on February 28 the 'Build A Fuzz Distortion Guitar Pedal Workshop' at the Oh Yeah Centre.
 
Zombie Science, however, is sure to be a highlight of this intriguing new addition to the Belfast festival scene. It is the kind of event that gets ten-year-old boys jumping off their chairs in their keenness to participate, and that adults will recall for anecdotal purposes – the perfect fusion of science and art. On the way out, I catch one parent saying to another, 'We should have taken him to 'Why We Die' first, then this.' Well, obviously.