Glasgow Science Festival – Zombies, Evolution and Science Sunday

Shaun Killen and Rowland Kao showing their knowledge of all things zombie.

‘Shaun of the Dead’ Killen and Rowland Kao showing their knowledge of all things zombie.

GlasgowSciFestThis past week has seen the opening of the ‘Glagsow Science Festival’ in which the Glasgow scientific community (largely but not entirely led by the University of Glasgow) presents itself to the general public. Offerings range from serious events highlighting the best science that our region has to offer (for example, in an opening night event celebrating Women in Science) to a ‘Whiskey-omics‘, event, which was a detailed study into the underlying molecular properties of Scotland’s favourite export led by Glasgow Polyomics.

Zara the Zombie

‘Zara the Zombie’ Gladman, former biodiversity PhD student and now Science Festival majordomo, shows her claws.

The Boyd Orr Centre was involved in two events. The first of these was an involvement in ‘Dead Sleazy‘, a celebration of all things zombie at Nice’n’Sleazy last Thursday night. It was originally conceived as a Boyd Orr Centre event, following on from other examples where zombies have been used to help inform people about science. A zombie apocalypse movie would be used to illustrate points about an epidemic, how it spreads and how it is controlled. At the suggestion of Deborah McNeill, the festival organiser, it was joined onto a Zombie Science lecture followed by a Q&A with Shaun Killen and myself, and a screening of Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead movie. The modern zombie movie has largely evolved from George Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’, and is now an amazingly popular movie genre.  Many zombie movies, such as with the ‘rage virus’ in 28 Days Later and its sequel, in I am Legend, or the TV series the Walking Dead, use viruses as the basis for zombie’ism, though there can be some controversy as to whether they really are about zombies (in I am Legend in particular, Richard Matheson’s original book and the movie Omega Man both considered the undead to be vampires, not zombies).  What were some questions we were asked? Are there any diseases that create zombies? Yes, according to Shaun there is a fungus that creates zombie ants. Which is worse – pandemic flu or the black death? Probably flu – with current antibiotics plague is treatable but vaccination against pandemic flu may not be fast enough. Are there any diseases that together could cause humans to behave like zombies? None that do it all (thankfully!) but rabies can induce behaviour changes and is transmitted by biting, while prion diseases (e.g. mad cow disease) impair motor control. Toxoplasmosis can cause rats to attack cats (apparently; I haven’t actually checked this one out). Why don’t zombies eat other zombies? We couldn’t answer that one – Katie Hampson provided the (now obvious) answer that its evolutionary selection – a zombie biting another zombie doesn’t help the virus survive! All in all, we had a really fun time with it, and the audience was excellent – many thanks to Zara Gladman and Deborah McNeill for organising it, and for Dr. Ian Smith of ZITS (the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies), who provided the excellent and informative introductory lecture before our Q&A.


Caroline Millins (L) and Sej Modha (R) manning the Boyd Orr Centre stand and wearing their stylish Boyd Orr Centre T-shirts.

Last Sunday, the Boyd Orr Centre manned a display at the Science Sunday event, held in the Gilbert Scott Building. Many thanks to Sej Modha for working tirelessly to make it happen (together with Cat O’Connor who, despite a busy job fighting zoonoses at the HPA, provided support based on her efforts with the first Boyd Orr stand from last year) with help from Minnie Parmiter both in setting up and on the day, as well as stand volunteers Caroline Millins, Natalie Hutchinson, Michael Deason, Joaquin Prada, Joseph Crisp and Prof. Mike Stear. From playing the ‘sneeze game‘ to answering quiz questions about how Scotland would handle an infectious disease outbreak, we had a lot of interesting and interested visitors, including a knowledgeable 3 year old who knows what a rhinovirus is. EPIC (the Scottish Centre of Expertise for Animal Disease Outbreaks) and the Wellcome Trust provided some funding, including the prizes for the contests (the much coveted Boyd Orr Centre mugs for adults, soft toy viruses, bacteria and parasites for the kids). A series of posters illustrated our work, including a zombieSciencePoster by Jess Enright linking zombie night to our display. In quiet moments, there was also a chance to look around; the other stands at the Science Festival were excellent (though not as good as ours of course!). There was a chance to handle replica stone axes and play with a human skull. Visitors had a chance to use forensic science tools to find out ‘who dunnit?, learning about invasive species in Scotland, and race robots through mazes. Will we be back next year? Absolutely, and hopefully you will be there too.



  1. You forgot to add that the zombie night at sleazy’s was sold out!!!
    I went and couldn’t get tickets!! 😦

  2. Toxoplasma infections certainly have some interesting effects on rodent behaviour. It doesn’t cause rats and mice to attack cats, but it does some neurological re-wiring of its intermediate hosts. This results in the normal flight response to cat urine being perceived as a sexual stimulus. So rather than attacking cats, infected rats and mice become overly enamoured with their predators and more time in areas where cats are present, making them easy prey thus increasing the probability of infecting a definitive feline host. Possibly more alarming than this is the effect this parasite can have on infected humans, with studies showing infected men exhibit more reckless behaviour and are more likely to be involved in car accidents!

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