Brad Pitt's zombie-attack movie "World War Z" may not seem like a natural jumping-off point for a discussion of mathematics or science, but in fact it was a request I received to review that movie in "The Conversation" and the review I wrote that led me to be invited to give a public lecture on zombies and maths at the Academy of Science next week. This week's colloquium will largely be a preview of that talk, so should be generally accessible.
My premise is that movies and maths have something in common. Both enable a trait which seems to be more highly developed in humans than in any other species, with profound consequences: the desire and capacity to explore possibility-space.
The same mathematical models can let us playfully explore how an outbreak of zombie-ism might play out, or how an outbreak of an infectious disease like measles would spread, depending, in part, on what choices we make. Where a movie gives us deep insight into one possibility, mathematics enables us to explore, at all once, millions of scenarios, and see where the critical differences lie.
I will try to use mathematical models of zombie outbreak to discuss how mathematical modelling and mathematical ideas such as functions and phase transitions might enter the public consciousness in a positive way.