Saturday, 9 January 2016

Diffusion of the dead - The maths of zombie invasions. Part 6, Run, don't fight.

Last time I demonstrated how to approximately find the time of your first interaction with a zombie using the diffusion equation and the bisection method. The Time-Distance-Diffusion graph is illustrated below.
Figure 1. Time in minutes until the density of zombies reaches one for various rates of diffusion and distances.
When the apocalypse does happen, we have to ask ourselves the question: do we want to waste time computing solutions when we could be out scavenging? In order to speed up the computational process we consider the diffusive time scale:
\begin{equation}t=\frac{L^2}{\pi^2 D}.\label{Time_scale}\end{equation}
You may recognise this group of parameter, as we saw it back in Part 4. In particular, in the solution to the diffusion equation, we can see that this is the time it takes for the first term of the infinite sum to fall to $\exp(-1)$ of its original value. The factor of $\exp(-1)$ is used due to its convenience.

Only the first term of the expansion is considered because as $n$ increases, the contribution from the term
\begin{equation}\exp\left(-\left( \frac{n\pi}{L} \right)^2Dt\right)\end{equation}
rapidly decreases. Thus, the first term gives an approximation to the total solution and, so, equation \eqref{Time_scale} gives a rough estimate of how quickly the zombies will reach us.

For example, being 90 metres away and with zombies who have a diffusion rate of 100m$^2$/min, $t\approx 26$ minutes, comparable to the solution in Figure 1. We have had to use no more computing power than you would find on a standard pocket calculator. More importantly this parameter grouping also implies a very important result about delaying the human-zombie interaction.There are two possible ways we could increase the time taken for the zombies to reach us. We could:  
  1. run away, thereby increasing $L$; or
  2. slow the zombies down, thereby decreasing $D$.
Since the time taken is proportional to the length squared, $L^2$ and inversely proportional to the diffusion speed, $D$. This means that if we were to double the distance between ourselves and the zombies, then the time for the zombies to reach us would approximately quadruple. However, if we were to slow the zombies down by half, then the time taken would only double.

Since we want to delay interaction with the zombies for as long as possible then, from the above reasoning, we see that it is much better to expend energy running away from the zombies than it is to try and slow them down. Note that we are assuming that zombies are hard to kill without some form of weaponry. If they weren't difficult to destroy then we need not worry about running away.

These conclusions are confirmed in Figure 1. Slowing a zombie down from 150 m/min to 100 m/min only gains you a couple of minutes when you are 50 metres away. However, running from 50 m to 90 m increases the time by over 10 minutes, even in the scenario of relatively fast zombies.

It should be noted that the time derived here is a lower bound. In reality, the zombies would be spreading out in two dimensions and would be distracted by obstacles and victims along the way, so the time taken for the zombies to reach us may be longer. The fact that this is a conservative estimate though will keep us safe, since the authors would prefer to be long gone from a potential threat rather than chance a few more minutes of scavenging!

Of course, we can't run forever. Next week we will begin to ask what happens when we finally meet this horrific horde!


  1. What is the diagram software used to create these graphs? IS it creately ?

  2. Thanks for the question. I actually use MATLAB, which is extremely complicated to use, but extremely powerful, and thus, it is widely used in mathematics.