By Jonas Waldenström
I have thing for sci-fi and fantasy books. For periods I read little else but books with at least one flaming sword on the cover. Toss in a magician and some women in light clothes and it is a sure read. And, no, it doesn’t need to be poor literature. There are a number of really skilled writers that can tell a compelling story in beautiful prose. The challenge is to weed these authors out from the tons of really crappy Tolkien-copycat writers that flood the market.
Occasionally I read a doom and gloom book, like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, or Metro 2033 by Dmitrij Gluchovskij. Last night I finished World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. Yes it is true, I read the book instead of watching the movie. Kind of old fashion guy, I’d say. But hey, I am a freaking professor, so I should be old fashioned. Anyway, WWZ is a page-turner. Loads of zombies devouring flesh, eating entrails, moaning and groaning, creating havoc and scaring children. The story is also on how mankind responded to the zombie threat, first with panic, then with sacrifice, and lastly with vengeance and purging of the undead. And on how today’s societal structures and geopolitics influenced the post-apocalyptic world. For instance, India and Pakistan nuked themselves out of the board. USA, of course, liberated large parts of the world from their refuge west of the Rockies. Surprisingly, Cuba’s closed communism system transformed into a new democratic world power by immigrants. The people of North Korea disappeared into caves never to be seen again. Russia became a new Soviet Union, now with religion as a base.
Sometimes it is very technical account, with this and that ammo doing this and that harm to a zombie. You see, to kill the undead zombie you need to aim for the brain. Apparently a zombie can do without most things – energy, oxygen, metabolism, gastrointestinal systems, limbs – but not the brain. Thus to put the end to the gaul you need to hit the brain, either with a bullet, or with a handy medieval sword. And it is somewhere here I as a scientist start to feel neglected. So, the cause of zombie plague is a virus. Yes, a virus. OK, but what are the fundamental properties of a virus? First, they do not have their own metabolism and need to infect living cells in order to propagate. This doesn’t really go well in hand with metabolically dead bodies without circulation. How should the virus particle go about forcing the dead body to perform its new functions (namely: moaning, searching for living humans, devour human flesh, repeat cycle)? Second, a virus will have a genome – be it RNA or DNA – that encodes for proteins, which in turn perform certain functions. These functions can be described and analyzed.
Nowhere in the book is there a single scientist mentioned. No attempts to study the nature of this new disease. There is one guy who invents a wonder drug, but this is more on the lines of fraud than of science. One doesn’t need to go far in today’s society to see that scientists make up the forefront in the battle against new infections. For instance, a collaborative effort of the global virology community managed to crack the SARS nut and describe the corona virus that caused it. Today, there is a global task force on influenza, and other scientists try to identify the sources of MERS infections in Saudi Arabia. Thus, I have a real hard time to see that scientist wouldn’t have tried to tackle a zombie virus. It would have been better not to list the cause, or, take the extraterrestrial approach, than to say it is a virus.
But it is still an entertaining book. And it must be an awesome feeling to whack the undead in the head and saving the world. I probably need to see the movie, too. Perhaps there are scientists in that one – would be refreshing to see.
Finally, for those interested, there are a number of true pathogens that affects the behavior of their hosts. The term ‘parasite-induced trophic transmission’ (or PITT for short) deals with instances when a parasite alters the behavior of an intermediate host in order to increase transmission to the final host. There are liver flukes that make ants crawl up to the top of grass in order to be swallowed down by grazing ungulates. There are worms that make the antennae of garden snails to pulse and flash to attract predatory birds. There is a fungus that makes ants snap their jaws shut on the underside of a leaf so that the fungus can grow inside the body and then release the spores through a fruiting body extending out from the head of the ant. There are parasites that make honeybees into ‘zombees’ that fly around at night. There are hairworms that make terrestrial grasshoppers to hop out in water so that the worms can finish their lifecycle (while the grasshopper drowns).
However, none of these pathogens reanimates the corpse and make it go around eating things. And isn’t that nice?