Random Walk 2.1 – Gamer’s Guide to Ecology, Ig Nobels, Montreal Protocol, The Narwhal


Hello, and welcome to Random Walk, a sciency podcast where we take steps of unit length 1, with directions selected randomly and independent of the previous step. I’m your host Adam Fortais.

This is a bit of a revamp of random walk. Let’s call it Season 2.

In math and whatever, a “Random Walk” is a process that we use to describe all sorts of things. Often, it’s called the Drunkard’s Walk. Here’s how it works. I’m drunk. I step out of the bar and I have some vague idea of going home. But being drunk, the direction I choose for my first step is picked at random. Let’s say I can turn left or right out the door. It’s a 50/50 chance, so lets say I go Left for exactly one step. Now I need to take a second step. Being drunk, the direction I choose to go is again, picked at random. So now I could either be 2 steps Left, or one step Left and one step Right. Back at the bar. Say I live just down the street from the bar. Say, 1000 steps Right. How many steps will it take for me to get home? Hard to say. There is no guarantee I will get home. It’s possible I walk the exact wrong direction, every single step, but that’s highly unlikely. Any guesses where the most likely location I’ll end up in? 

Random Walks, and modified random walks are used EVERYWHERE to model stuff. That’s why I call this pod Random Walk. We’re starting here, at the bar, and I am going to tell you about the things I stumble upon as I wobble my way around the world of research. Who knows where we’ll end up! 

Now that we have that out of the way…

This week, we:

  • The Ig Nobel Prizes have been awarded for 2021! It’s like the Nobel prize, but with a better selection process. Just kidding, but only sort of. 
  • The world’s most successful climate-based agreement had its 30-something’th anniversary on September 16th. Let me tell you about it, will ya?
  • A brand new climate-focused reporting outfit right here in frikkin Ontario. And I think it’s going to be a good one. It’s about time, right? 
  • And… the second episode of the Gamer’s Guide to Ecology, where Jessie deHaan dives into the fauna in Red Dead Redemption 2

But first: This podcast is brought to you by scientificanada.ca . The goal of scientificanada is to get real science to real people, which we do by producing entertaining and informative content about research, academia, and being a curious nerd. A big part of our thing is finding and promoting new projects and new voices with financial support and expertise. If you have an idea for a project, we’d love to hear from you. Head to scientificanada.ca to see some of the shows and articles we’ve helped with, and if you want to discuss details, you can find me on twitter at AdamFortais or email me at fortaisadam@gmail.com . Support for our projects comes from our generous and very very smart patreon subscribers. Find out more about how you can help us with our next projects over at patreon.com/scican . Thanks!

**Fade music out**

Block One (C): Gamer’s Guide to Ecology, Ep 2.

**Play episode**

Block Two (C): Montreal Protocol (additional research from article)

I started writing these really free-form and minimally-guided blog posts for the Journal of Fluid Mechanics and FLOW, two academic journals specializing in the physics, math, and applications of fluid dynamics research. The one stipulation is that I talk about and link to the new research articles being published by these journals. Other than that, I’m free to do pretty much whatever I want, so I set myself a goal of a) not being a shill or hypeman for the work, and b) see if I can find a climate story in the research. This has led me down a bunch of rabbit holes and I’ve been learning a lot. Today I want to tell you about, honestly, one of the only truly successful climate initiatives Canada has been a part of. It also lines up fairly well time-wise, since September 16th marks the 30-something-th anniversary of the initial signing of the agreement. 

So, growing up as a 90s kid, my understanding of the climate crisis came more or less from Fern Gully, Captain Planet, and vague TV references to the hole in the ozone layer. The solution, to me, a child, was to 1) turn off the tap while you brush your teeth, 2) stop cutting down trees (no more homework, right?) and 3) spray cans and refrigerators were the devil. Also, that pollution was horny as hell. Hexus? From Fern Gully? 

**Insert sexy Hexus sound clip** 

Of these issues though, I thought the spray can one was basically not a problem anymore. Turns out that’s kind of true, mostly thanks to the Montreal Protocol.

In 1987, 46 signatories in Montreal ratified a treaty designed to phase out the use of ozone-depleting hydrocarbons, which came into wide-spread use in the 1950’s and 1960’s as more and more products requiring solvents, propellants, and refrigerants came to market. In hindsight, the quickness with which the Montreal Protocol was ratified is staggering. In 1976, The National Research Council in the United States issued one of the very first reports confirming that these hydrocarbons could be reacting in the stratosphere, causing the loss of our ozone layer. Then in 1985, researchers from the British Antarctic Survey reported significant ozone loss above the South Pole consistent with the 1976 report. Several other studies followed finding similarly shocking results, ultimately leading to the signing of the most successful international climate agreement in UN history. In 2009 the Montreal Protocol became one of the first UN treaties to be universally ratified, having been signed by 196 countries and the European Union.

Before the Montreal Protocol, ozone-depleting hydrocarbons like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HCFCs) were used in a variety of products, often for their high volatility and ability to reduce the viscosity of fluids like paint. These features enabled aerosol manufacturers to use CFCs as both solvent and the compressed propellant, which ejected the paint as an aerosol spray. Limiting the use of CFCs and HCFCs is a huge success, and the UN is now projecting that the ozone layer should return to pre-1980 levels by mid-century. But there are plenty of alternative compounds that have replaced them; many of which are dangerous in their own way. These alternatives may be safer for the ozone layer but are often toxic, flammable, carcinogenic, or release carbon dioxide when they are burned. Because of how useful aerosol products are, it’s unlikely volatile chemicals of this sort will ever be completely replaced. But new inventions could be leveraged in certain applications to replace some aerosol-based techniques that rely on these chemicals.

So my article was about one of these new techniques, it’s basically like taking an inkjet cartridge and shaking it like a ketchup bottle. It sounds simple and a little silly, but it actually solves a bunch of important problems that has forced us to continue using spray products (which I’ll add are also pretty wasteful, since as much as 70% of the paint or coating materials won’t make it to the correct location. 

It’s pretty cool how simple the solution is and the physics is pretty sweet to nerds like me. I’ll let you all know when my article is posted.

Block Three (N): The Narwhal opens Ontario office

Climate change is real, but we can’t fix it without big companies and governments making big changes. But, sad to say, we aren’t going to get it unless governments and companies are held accountable. Held accountable by who, though? I’m just some dude in a closet talking to a computer. It’s easy to miss a climate goal or break an agreement if newspapers and media companies have to find space for their climate reporting. That’s why more and more climate-centric or even climate-exclusive media companies are popping up. People want to know why we’ve missed every climate target since _____, and more importantly, we want to see that our representatives are actively making decisions to hit the next targets.

What I mean is, the kind of climate reporting that gets picked up as “news” are the big, dramatic things like forest fires, floods, missed targets, and pipelines. Those get told as climate stories. But EVERYTHING has a climate angle. Seeing only big breaking news and missing out on smaller, everyday analysis, it’s easy for the public to miss out on all of the important context and bigger, overarching stories going on around us. It’s easy to have a vague idea of the climate emergency, but have no clue if the province you live in is “doing a good job” or “doing a bad job”. Keeping up with all of this information, forming opinions, and using these opinions to inform how you vote and spend your money is a full time job. That’s why we need more climate-based reporting. 

Well, good news. The good people at The Narwhal have just opened their Ontario climate office. The team is, well, it’s kind of an all-star team. We’re talking bureau chief Denise Balkissoon, an award-winning journalist who joins The Narwhal after serving as executive editor of Chatelaine. Previously, Balkissoon worked as a columnist and editor at The Globe and Mail. Then we’ve got, in the words of Mike deSouza at The Nar, “a dynamic duo of agenda-setting reporters: Fatima Syed and Emma McIntosh.” Of all three of these reporters, the first one I recognized was actually Fatima Syed. She’s been a fixture over on Canadaland and has been killing it on The Backbench, one of my new favorite news podcasts. Emma McIntosh also has a killer track record, McIntosh worked previously as an investigative reporter at the Toronto Star and most recently as Queen’s Park reporter at Canada’s National Observer. In 2019, McIntosh’s investigation into an oilsands leak that affected Fort McKay First Nation won a Canadian Association of Journalists’ award for human rights reporting.

The Narwhal is a pioneer of non-profit journalism in Canada and is supported by more than 3,500 monthly members. In March 2021, The Narwhal became Canada’s first English-language registered journalism organization, which means all of our members and donors receive donation tax receipts. The Narwhal is also a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, recognizing our adherence to strict standards of editorial independence and financial transparency. The Narwhal is a founding member of Press Forward, Canada’s association for independent media, and a proud partner organization of Covering Climate Now, a collaborative global journalism project to bring more coverage to climate issues.

I think my favorite thing The Narwhal does is its explainer pieces. They are less about breaking stories and more about doing deep dives into issues to get readers up to speed contextualizing the issue. I’m coming to environment and policy from a purely academic background, and I will tell you, academics are smart and very good at learning and understanding complicated systems, but I’m in grade, like, 22 by now, and the last time had an actual class on “politics” was civics and careers in grade 9. Like most people, I’ve had to learn about this stuff on my own and in a very ad-hoc way. Coming from the science end, it’s not too difficult to call bullshit on technical details and claims, but a whole other thing figuring out the actual politics of these issues. That’s why I go to the Narwhal.

I’m excited about this new Ontario bureau because, how many Ontario-centric environmental stories can you think of? I vaguely recall a few, but they seem to pop up in the news, then disappear , never to be heard of again. So I will be keeping my eye on these women and probably citing their work pretty frequently. So… heads up. You can beat me to it if you want by heading to thenarhwhal.ca . Details in the show notes, of course.

About us (The Narwhal)

The Narwhal launches Ontario bureau for environmental journalism

Block Four (R): Ig Nobel Prize 2021

All right. We are almost out of time but I think we can squeeze one more story in. My favorite prize in all of science was announced recently! The Ig Nobel prize is awarded “For achievements that first make people LAUGH then make them THINK”. This year was the 31st ceremony and, I will say, they are often animal-based and well… I think they sort of speak for themselves. If this is your first time hearing about the awards then it is my great honor to present to you, the 2021 Ig Nobel prizes. If you’ve heard of this before, here, let me read you this year’s winners. 

**reads list of prizes**

So there is a lot to talk about there and I’d love to get into it in a later episode or blog post on scientificanada.ca . If any of those piqued your interest, let me know on Twitter at AdamFortais. 

**Outro music**

That’s it for this episode. If you have comments or questions, find me on Twitter at AdamFortais or email me at fortaisadam@gmail.com . Our music was provided by my friends from the band Boonie. Find them at boonie.rocks . If you liked the show, share it with a friend. We are on all streaming platforms and youtube, just look for scientificanada . If you want to learn more, or if you’d like to help us support more creators, head to scientificanada.ca . See ya later! 

Find more Jessie on Twitter and Twitch, and be sure to add the Gamer’s Guide to your favorite podcasting app!

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