Halloween-themed talk combines calculus and zombie attacks

image of a jack-o-lanternTwo UW-L math professors will give a Halloween-themed talk Wednesday, Oct. 30, that aims to show math isn’t all that scary.

Mathematics faculty members Robert Allen and James Peirce will demonstrate how mathematical models can be used to predict how zombies and vampires could take over the human population. The talk “Zombies, Vampires and Math, Oh My!” will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, in 100 Cowley Hall. Costumes are encouraged.

“The monsters are scary, but the mathematical models aren’t scary. It’s a tool — like anything else,” says Allen.

Allen, who has turned the zombie question into a class project in Calculus 1, notes replacing the zombies and vampires with infections such as swine flu or SARS turn the computation into one with much more serious implications.

“We use the fun metaphors or zombies and vampires, but I hope students can see that they can use math as a tool to understand something important and relevant to their lives — in this case, how an infectious disease spreads through a population,” says Allen.

Allen and Peirce will use calculus equations and map the results on a computer-generated graph. But they assure one does not need to know calculus to understand their presentation and they encourage all to attend. The more important take away from their lecture is how to use critical thinking to describe what’s happening using the language of math.

Robert Allen

Robert Allen, associate professor of mathematics

The two argue that the math they’ll teach could just as well be applied to develop a formula for how a rumor spreads or how Romeo and Juliets’ love grows. Peirce uses it in his research to describe the interaction of predator and prey in an environment — in his case how a parasite inside a snail kills birds.

Math is important regardless of the field of study and understanding how to make sense of it can be benefit biologists, chemists, political scientists and sociologists alike. From understanding how to balance a checkbook to interpreting a percentage used in a local news article, math is a part of everyone’s life, they say.

“Having math background in courses increases your ability to see math everywhere and not be afraid of it,” says Pierce.

Image of James Peirce, associate professor of mathematics

James Peirce, associate professor of mathematics

It also has the potential to set an applicant apart from others whether applying for jobs or graduate school.

“We hope to pique students’ interest so they start asking the question of how to use the math they know in applications,” says Peirce. “That’s usually a slippery slope to undergraduate research projects.”

If you go —

What: “Zombies, Vampires and Math, Oh My!”

Where: 100 Cowley Hall

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30

Admission: Free