Tartu University opens its new, modern physics building

On 25 August, the University of Tartu opened its new modern building of the Institute of Physics, called Physicum, situated at the university’s Maarjamõisa science campus. The building of approximately 13,000 square metres provides contemporary facilities for research in physics, materials science and nanotechnology.

“The new building of the Institute of Physics brings under one roof the teaching and research activities that were so far scattered between different buildings,” emphasised Jaak Kikas, Director of the Institute of Physics.

The new physics building will house four Estonian centres of excellence and 14 physics laboratories, the experiments of which will, among other places, reach MAX-lab, the Swedish national centre of synchrotron light source. Students of physics, materials science, computer engineering, etc can make use of modern facilities for studies and conducting experiments. In addition to the spacious lecture halls, teaching activities can be conducted in eight study laboratories equipped with all necessary fittings for practical lectures.

The most expensive and the newest piece of scientific equipment at the new physics building is the transmission electron microscope (TEM) that cost €2 million. The new Physicum also has a scanning electron microscope (FIB-SEM), allowing to investigate the inner structure of materials. It also enables to cut nano-thin pieces of materials and create a 3D image of the researched object on a nanoscopic scale.

The building includes two large conference rooms that accommodate 300 people in total. The rooms are equipped with state-of-the-art multimedia solutions allowing cross-use, meaning that one conference can be simultaneously held and followed in both rooms.

The construction of the physics building cost more than €16 million, €13.5 million of which was covered by the resources of the European Regional Development Fund via the Archimedes Foundation.


Cover photo: The University of Tartu’s brand new “Physicum”.

TEDxTallinn 2014 – five talks that speak the world about Estonians

TEDxTallinn is an inspirational conference, which presents exceptional speakers from different fields of life: fanatical devotees, thinkers, creators, executors – people with ideas that are worth sharing. Henrik Ehte, the Editor-in-Chief of The Baltic Scene, attended the 2014 conference and shares his impressions.

I started preparing for an inspiring day at TEDxTallinn by not having a decent meal or morning coffee. Instead I biked frantically to the location at KUMU – Estonia’s preeminent art museum situated right next to the president’s residence. Fortunately I was welcomed by smoothies and veggie meals at the meet’n’greet where you could see cool gadgets, enjoy “useful coffee-breaks” and seize the moment.

My motivations to visit the conference were strongly connected to an ambitious notion: to see the future. I wanted to know what the specialists of the fields like maths, biology, ecology, design, arts, culture, literature, etymology, economy, sociology and politics were predicting. TEDxTallinn – an independently organised event creating TED-like experience – had invited Estonians on top of their game to share their insights.

Photo, Volunteers of TedxTallinn'14, Credits Sten Roosvald

What I found out was that these people weren’t looking into the future as much as inventing it. Giving rise to new stories, concepts and tools, they help find solutions to problems before and after they have arisen. Before these people could to lay their mack down, a musical act kicked off the day.

I have to hand it to Juhan Aru, who married the seemingly ludicrous concept of “Structure of Randomness” to the probability distribution of bus waiting times in ‘90s Mexico; Anne Kahru – one of the most cited scientists working on the frontier of ecotoxicological research in Estonia; Indrek Park for saving the indigenous languages of North-America as well as Valdur Mikita, whose semiotic stand-up act revealed that Väinamöinen (the central character in the Finnish folkflore – editor) is the prototype for Gandalf.

While all of the performers provided hefty brain food, I chose to highlight five speakers. Continue along the pages below to get an insight into talks by: Eiko Ojala, Kaupo Kikkas, Merle Maigre, Jaan Aru, Eva Koff.

Cover illustration by Eiko Ojala.

Cracking the code – learning Estonian in Estonia

As a teenager I travelled and lived abroad with nothing more than a fifty-five-litre backpack and the invincible confidence of youth. The desire to explore and experience never left, and when, fifteen years, one husband and two kids later, the opportunity to live abroad suddenly arose again – this time for my husband’s dream job in Tallinn – I was delighted.

Cue some research about Estonia – our basic requisites being that we move to a country interesting enough to pack our time there with learning about the region, but not so insurmountably alien that it might terrify the nascent traveller-explorer in our children. A cursory check of our no-go list – even my impetuous self would struggle with living somewhere with wildly different ideas about women’s rights, for example, or a crime rate that makes the eyes water; and the decision was made.

We arrived in Tallinn just in time for the winter solstice; dark days, roaring fires and the magical Christmas market gave way to the riotous celebrations of New Year (I have never before heard a seven-year-old ask for permission to go to bed because the fireworks were going on too long); and I set about my first mission. Learn Estonian – it can’t be that difficult, can it?

The forecast high for the day is minus fourteen degrees Celsius (7°F). There has been little snow for a few days, and the tramping of weary feet has turned ungritted pavements in the capital to passable cross country ski runs. I sit in a bare, modern classroom at the prestigious Tallinn University, surrounded by the circumstantially obligated and the academically masochistic, attempting to grasp one of the worlds most difficult, and perhaps least useful languages. To ensure our focus, the teacher leaves the windows wide open.

“Why?!” is the usual deadpan response when I tell an Estonian I want to be part of their secret club. And it is a fair question.”

“Why?!” is the usual deadpan response when I tell an Estonian I want to be part of their secret club. And it is a fair question. Of my classmates some have straight forward answers; the romantic (the Brazilian archaeologist who fell in love with an Estonian in the Amazon and followed him here); the pragmatic (the businessman hoping to pass the government-mandated language tests to secure better tax breaks for his company); those moving towards something (the Dutch guy finally reunited with his Estonian girlfriend after years of cross border commuting), and those moving away (the Russian couple who curl their lips at the mention of their country’s politics). Some are slightly more off the wall – the Japanese classmate following her beloved Baruto-san, the Estonian champion sumo wrestler, only to find that he is retiring from the sport and returning to Estonia to his family farm.

And me. I would have laughed if you had told me six months ago I would be spending my winter in the Baltics, wearing the ill-advised love child of a duvet and a onesie and trying to crack a language so impenetrable it was apparently used in WW2 to communicate among allied spies (the axis powers being convinced it was code. Or perhaps elvish). But here I am. When the suggestion arose that we move the family here, the permanently invincible teenager in me clearly answered. Possibly before looking the Baltics up on a map.

“I would have laughed if you had told me six months ago I would be spending my winter in the Baltics and trying to crack a language so impenetrable it was apparently used in WW2 to communicate among allied spies”

My motley crew of classmates and I make up the beginners class in Estonian at the Tallinn University Winter School; a three week long series of short courses demonstrating the university facilities, expertise and range of courses, this season ranging from Estonian and Russian language classes to “experimental interaction” and “ways of seeing the past”. The school is a big draw to lecturers and foreign students alike, with some students deciding to stay on afterwards. The Winter School is the little sister to the more established Summer School, for those who prefer the white nights of midsummer to the delights of the northern winter.

Estonian sits in the Finno-Ugric family of languages, intelligible only to those over the water in Finland (and historically related also to Hungarian, although these days the languages have diverged somewhat). It is the official language for the population of 1.3 million in Estonia, although a large number of Estonian Russians don’t use it.

For Estonia, language, as a marker of nationhood, is sacred. The pragmatic education system ensures fluency in English for all young Estonians (the older generations having learned Russian under the Soviet system and Finnish from the TV broadcasts beamed over from Helsinki); but the bewildered response to a foreigner learning the language seems less about pragmatics and more about keeping gate crashers away from the party.

“The pragmatic education system ensures fluency in English for all young Estonians; but the bewildered response to a foreigner learning the language seems less about pragmatics and more about keeping gate crashers away from the party.”

Dissuading foreigners to try isn’t hard. Estonian has fourteen cases, no gender, three forms of every single word and no specific future tenses. As my Estonian teacher cheerfully recounts, “this is Estonia – no sex, no future”.

After a week of learning vocabulary I have a list of words as long as my arm and I’m starting to understand odd bits of billboard (bizarrely mainly the public service announcements suggesting people lay off the vodka and so on). We then turn, with typical Estonian gallows humour, to grammar. A week of slaving over cases and tense, results in the conclusion “some of this stuff, you just have to learn”; like why you go “into” some towns, but “onto” others. About this point the temperature really plummets, and whether the cause is this or the grammar, half the class disappears. One classmate – an eccentric Frenchman of the type that creates the impression that a mastery of French relies on exaggerated hand gestures and the word “boff!” – has to attend an emergency in Malawi. Others are not so creative.

After three weeks I am able to proficiently read warnings against going outside in the dark without your (legally required) reflectors and about the dangers of blindness caused by illegal, methanol-based vodka. Talking in any useful fashion has been slower progress, but I have made some friends and swapped some tales and will continue to work on the application of my language skills.

“After three weeks I am able to proficiently read warnings against going outside in the dark without your (legally required) reflectors and about the dangers of blindness caused by illegal, methanol-based vodka.”

In the real world, I have been trying to practise my budding skills. In the newsagents I top up my bus card, “Palun, viis päeva”. The assistant, who has served me several times before, and knows I am studying, humours me. Then he opens fire with a barrage of Estonian I am pretty sure he knew I could not understand. My eyes betray me. He smiles the smile of a man who has seen many before me, have a bash, but ultimately submit to the complexities of his native tongue. We complete the conversation in fluent, chirpy, Americanised English, and I return to my study guide.


* Adapted from the article first published in the Young and Global magazine. Cover photo by Ilmar Saabas (Maaleht). Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

University of Tartu launches an innovative social media hub

The University of Tartu’s social media hub is an innovation in Estonia as well as abroad as it allows following the university’s events via its posts in social media. Created on the example of US universities MIT, Hamilton and Harvard, the environment currently brings together around 100 social media accounts linked to the university.

“By implementing a social media hub we make information more compact and accessible to some very important target groups of the university – current and future students and the university’s collective who use social media on daily basis and follow our news through these channels,” said Illari Lään, the Head of the UT’s Communication Unit. According to him, an estimated 100,000 users currently follow the university’s social media accounts.

The social media hub, unique in the European context, represents UT’s versatility through its Estonian, Russian and English language accounts. According to the Senior Specialist for International Communication, Inga Külmoja, the new web environment reflects on the ongoing events in the university as a uniform whole: “While some Facebook account posts reach the users’ information feeds selectively, the information will not be lost in the university’s social media hub. The hub also features a search that helps find UT’s social media accounts of interest and to follow them.”

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“The posts from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs will be displayed as a uniform information feed in the hub. About one half of the pages linked to the hub are the Facebook pages of different university units and programmes,” Külmoja explained.

The social media hub is constantly renewed. All users are welcome to add any known social media accounts related to the university via the web form. Among other things, the social media hub allows to highlight the content created by users. For example, the English-language page of the hub currently highlights the freshest Instagram photos tagged with #unitartu. Similarly, it is possible, for example, to highlight the tweets made by people in the University of Tartu in Twitter or tweets related to a certain conference on the basis of a given hashtag.


Cover photo: University of Tartu (Tiit Mõtus for VisitEstonia).

Performance of Estonian students among world’s best – PISA study

The scholastic performance of Estonian 15-year-old students is among the best in the world and Europe, results of the international worldwide study Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show.

In science Estonia shares the first and second place in Europe with Finland, and among the 65 countries surveyed around the world, Estonian students placed between four and seven with Japan, Finland and South Korea, spokespeople for the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research said. In reading and mathematics Estonia placed 11th in the world and between places three and six in Europe.

According to the Estonian Minister of Education and Research, Jaak Aaviksoo, it is hard to overestimate the importance of PISA in executing smart educational policy.

“PISA is like a big mirror which shows the advancement of our education compared with other countries and nations. It is good that we have been demanding when it comes to our education – this is what enables us to be happy today for what we have achieved,” Aaviksoo said. He added that the survey also pointed out areas that needed to be improved – the reading skills of boys lagged behind the corresponding skills of girls and differences between schools were still too big.

Photo by Erik RiikojaThe performance of Estonia’s Russian-speaking students has made a noteworthy leap in six years – their results have improved twice as fast as the results of Estonian-speaking students and the earlier gap between these two groups has decreased considerably.

Other positive observations can be gathered from the study’s results; for instance, Estonia has the smallest amount of students with poor skills in Europe and the fifth smallest amount in the world. In addition, Estonia has very little educational stratification compared with other countries because Estonian primary schools are able to relieve the lagging among students due to their social background and the lack of support from home.

More than half a million 15-year-old students from 65 countries took part in the 2013 study. Knowledge in three areas was measured – in mathematics, reading and science. In Europe the top three was made up of Estonia, Finland and Poland, and in the world Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore were among the top three.

In Estonia the PISA study was carried out by the Ministry of Education and Research and the INNOVE foundation.


Photos courtesy of VisitEstonia.

Scientists from the University of Tartu receive high European award

Young scientists Karlis Zalite, Kaupo Voormansik and Kalev Koppel from the University of Tartu received the Copernicus Masters innovation competition DLR Environmental Challenge award with their projectUrban Analyser Your City Development Tool“.

The winning project allows people to see population changes, the number of new buildings, built-up area animations with fine time-steps and trend predictions from space.

“Urbanisation is a global mega-trend. During the past decades, millions of people have moved to live in big cities or to the proximity of big cities. The suburban regions grow geographically, challenging the infrastructure, especially transportation network, and stressing the environment, which might lead to undesirable results in case of poor planning and regulation. In order to make informed decisions about future developments accurate and timely information about the current situation, past dynamics and on-going trends is essential,“ said the head of the project, Kaupo Voormansik.


The planned service will offer high-resolution global urban development information based on data from the radar satellite Sentinel-1. The emphasis is on fine temporal dynamics mapping – the possibility to extract changes with less than one-month time steps, which makes it the fastest, freshest and most robust information source on urban developments. Anonymous mobile location based services (LBS) data will be used for estimating the population and detecting abandoned city blocks.

“Thanks to information gathered from the satellite, the European Commission, environmental organisations and local governments will have regularly updated information about the developments of urbanisation. Gathered data will enable to cost-effectively plan, for instance, an area’s developmental policies, environmental protection as well as the developmental possibilities of its infrastructure,” Voormansik added.

The recognition means a lot to the team and to different parties, and shows Estonian research facilities as competence centres of the field. “In cooperation with the University of Tartu, Tartu Observatory and Regio AS, Estonia is becoming the development centre of radar satellite applications which is also demonstrated by the received recognition,” Voormansik asserted.

The Copernicus Masters innovation competition was initiated by the European Space Agency (ESA), the Bavarian Ministry of Economic Affairs, the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and T-Systems in 2011 with endorsement of the European Commission.


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