Connecting outside of the frames of war

When I moved to Estonia to study at the University of Tartu, one of the best ways to take a break and relax was by chatting with my grandma over Skype. She would ask me all kinds of questions: Is it too cold? Do they sell lavash there? Who are you friends with? She was alarmed every time she heard about fellow international students from Azerbaijan: “Are you careful?”

I don’t judge my grandma harshly for this last question. Ever since Armenia and Azerbaijan froze a years-long war over the Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh region in 1994, the two nations became ghosts to each other. Borders closed down, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced so the two neighbours could “clean” their lands from each other, travelling became forbidden or too dangerous. Even the products made in the neighbouring country were prohibited from entering the domestic market. 

"The Barrel of Piece" in Ararat Brandy Factory
“The Barrel of Peace” in Ararat Brandy Factory is the only place where the Azerbaijani flag is displayed in Armenia. It is planned to open the barrel when peace is established between the two countries.
Image credit: Karine Ghazaryan

Armenians and Azerbaijanis disappeared from each other’s lives. Only one single connection remained: the war.

For 26 years, the two nations failed to resolve the conflict and violence occasionally broke out on the border. From time to time, we heard reports about attacks from the other side and soldiers dying. As a result, for Armenians and Azerbaijanis their neighbouring country shrank and became nothing more than a dangerous bully at the border.

***

Two weeks ago, on 27 September, a full-scale war resumed between Armenia and Azerbaijan. I am a journalist, so I have to constantly monitor the news and report on important developments. This task has not been easy, neither technically (propaganda lies need to be addressed in times of war) nor mentally.  

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3 myths about conspiracy theories

Academic discourse usually defines ʻconspiracy theory’ as narrative explanation that sees a group of people acting in secret to vicious end as the driving force behind events.

It has become a trendy buzzword that can be met in tabloids, entertainment portals and social media, as well as on web pages dedicated to monitoring disinformation and refuting fake news. Naturally, these sources treat conspiracy theories and their socio-cultural influence in hugely varying senses that may even contradict one another.

This blog entry highlights three myths related to conspiracy theories, that are essentially neither right nor wrong – as is the case with myths, but that first and foremost serve as reductive modes of thinking on a topic. Myths about conspiracy theories cast light on the contemporary conspiracy theorising culture as if with an electric torch – emphasising certain tendencies, yet leaving much that is important unlit. What is remarkable is that it is possible to believe in several myths at the same time, even though there are logical discrepancies between them.

Myth 1: Only people on the fringe engage in conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theorising is often treated as a marginal cultural phenomenon that spreads in peripheral forums and social media groups and has no place in politicians’ addresses,  officially approved versions of history or texts by professional journalists.

Newspapers’ entertainment portals often publish stories that stereotypically represent conspiracy theorists as out-of-touch characters in tin foil hats who may suffer from idées fixes. It is quite typical that a tabloid story focusing on conspiracy theories starts with the claim that “a crackpot conspiracy theory connected with event X has become viral on social media”, followed by a passage of purple prose about the most shocking details of said theory.

Elu24, one of the most popular Estonian tabloid portals, offers us a plethora of headlines referring to conspiracy theories, accompanied by video links and comments by conspiracy theorists, for instance “How flat-earthers explain solar eclipse” or “Flat-earther leaving for space in self-made rocket to perish on camera”. Naturally, the Illuminati cannot be left out either: “Conspiracy theorists: ʻThe World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is actually a meeting of the Illuminati’”, and the list goes on.

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How to design effective drugs against neurodegeneration

The widespread use of modern drugs has already made it possible to significantly increase the average life expectancy worldwide, and it is predicted that the average life expectancy will only increase in the future. Such achievements would not have been possible without the development of the modern pharmaceutical industry and the continuous improvement of drug therapy methods.

However, for a very long time, the pharmaceutical industry did not have a reliable understanding of the molecular processes in living systems and mechanisms of disease development. In addition, there was no knowledge about specific molecular “targets” that could have an impact on disease control.

The development of the first drugs was not only a trial-and-error method – which is inherent in science as a whole – but this path also did not completely take into account the principles of the structure of living matter at the molecular level.

The scientists and doctors who developed the first drugs worked with some molecules that could affect other molecules, and they had absolutely no idea and could not imagine the details and complexity of these interactions.

Namely, any disease at the molecular level is a consequence of a dysfunction of proteins and/or genes encoding them. The human genome contains about 20,000 genes that encode proteins. The effects of modern drugs are directed to more than 500 targets. At the same time, many diseases are caused by the dysfunction of not one, but at least 5 to 10 related proteins and genes encoding them.

Multiple disorders characterize neurogenerative diseases

Neurodegenerative diseases (NDs) belong to such types of disorders associated with multiple protein dysfunction. The most common NDs are Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Currently, the world has seen a rapid increase in patients with NDs. According to a report by the World Health Organization, the total number of people with dementia worldwide amounted to around 50 million in 2015, and there are around 10 million new cases every year.

There are no radical treatments for neurodegenerative diseases at present. Current treatment methods only help to improve symptoms, relieve pain, and increase mobility. Therefore, there is a great need for therapies to prevent and slow the progression of neurodegenerative disorders.

The major challenge in drug development against NDs is the fact that we poorly understand the mechanisms of the development of NDs. As mentioned above, NDs are characterized by multiple disorders. Thus, current drug development paradigms have shifted from a “single target” approach to drug development targeting multiple aspects (targets) of the disease. Also, the shift is from treating NDs in the later stages of disease progression to focusing on prevention and neuroprotective strategies at the early stages of disease development.

Neurodegenerative diseases in the brain
Neurodegenerative diseases are characterized by multiple disorders. That is why drugs should affect multiple targets related to the disease, too.
Image credit: Larisa Ivanova
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What Belarusian people joke about

Anastasiya Fiadotava
Anastasiya Fiadotava.
Image from a personal archive

Some nations and ethnic groups are famous for their jokes all over the world (Who doesn’t know a good Jewish joke?). Other people’s humour is less prominent or inferior. In many cases the lack of visibility of a nation’s humour can be explained by the lack of attention towards it on behalf of the media, popular culture, and, of course, researchers.

When deciding on my PhD project, I thought I could fill in one of these gaps – and that’s how a thesis on Belarusian family humour was born.

Jokes highlight the Belarusians’ patience

Belarus is an Eastern European country with a population of around 9.4 million. Up until recently Belarus and its people rarely made it to the international news and thus remained very much a “thing-in-itself”, as Kant would have put it.

A stereotypical image of a true Belarusian existed only in Belarusians’ minds, and jokes about Belarusians can be mostly heard and understood within the country itself. Belarusians’ submissiveness and passiveness are among the popular targets of such jokes. Consider the following joke, which exists in many variations in oral and online communication:

A Russian was seated on a bench which had a nail pointing out of it. The Russian sprang up from the bench, crushed it, cursed everyone, and left. A Ukrainian sat [on the same kind of bench]. The Ukrainian stood up, pulled out a nail, took it, and left. A Belarusian sat there too. The Belarusian was sitting and sitting, ouching and ouching, and then said: “But maybe it ought to be this way?” (See the current variant of the joke in Belarusian; you can also find some other jokes on similar topics in this thread).

Such self-deprecating jokes sometimes compare Belarusians with other nations (as in the example above) and emphasize that Belarusians are usually the victims rather than the aggressors. The focus on Belarusians’ tolerance and patience in jokes creates an ambiguous image of the nation. On the one hand, such character traits prevent Belarusians from pursuing their own agenda and defending their rights. On the other hand, they can also be interpreted in a positive light and depict Belarusians as a nation who would choose peaceful means over open conflict.

Family humour solves problems

While jokes with punchlines (called анекдоты in Russian and Belarusian and anekdoodid in Estonian) are rather uniform in the ways they depict Belarusians, family humour is much more diverse. Most of it consists of conversational jokes, funny remarks and nicknames, humorous stories that occurred with family members in the past. Much of this humour is situational and one of a kind: it is quickly forgotten. But some of the jokes and stories stay in the family members’ memory for a long time and are remembered when the context is appropriate.

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How healthy the Baltic Sea and its fish are

The view that the Baltic Sea is one of the most polluted seas in the world may sound implausible at first, especially for someone who has seen the oil fields of the North Sea, the trade ports of Hamburg, or the garbage-filled bays of Southeast Asia.

There are two reasons for that. Firstly, when speaking about pollution, people tend to lump together maritime traffic, urban sewage, and industrial pollution, as well as nutrient runoff from agriculture. While the former involve specific contaminants, nutrients are not toxic but impact the environment through indirect processes.

However, oxygen depletion in the waters, caused by excess nutrient loads, algal blooms and other stressors, contribute to increasing the impact of contamination from toxic substances and sources.

Secondly, the Baltic Sea is an inland sea, and the substances and problems that have once influenced the waters tend to persist. Even today, traces of the insecticide DDT can be found in the sediment layer of the Baltic Sea, regardless of the fact that the substance has been banned on these shores for dozens of years.


The author of this article, Randel Kreitsberg, on the Baltic Sea near Saarnaki island in Estonia. Image from a personal archive

Oil is to fish as alcohol is to humans

In my master’s thesis, I investigated the long-term effects of the 2006 oil spill in Nõva and Keibu bay, off the northwestern coast of Estonia. The effects of this relatively small spill, estimated at around 40 tons of heavy fuel oil, could be detected in the sediment layer and affected the fish even as long as a year and a half following the contamination.

Since fish can usually “process” and excrete the pollution from most oil spill incidents (fuels, oils, crude oil), it is possible to measure how their liver detoxifies their bodies and identify the measure of oxidative stress in the fish living in a certain environment.    

In the course of evolution, humans have adapted to alcohol consumption and have developed enzymes to reduce the toxic effect of alcohol in the body. The same analogy applies to oil and fish. Humans and fish are not so different, after all.

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Our big day: It all started in Tartu

A couple of weeks ago we had our big day, a day in a long path that has changed us both and will change our lives forever: a path of responsibility, commitment, respect, and – most of all – love. On 25 July we tied the knot and it was a sunny day of happiness! It was a moment that we had planned and imagined for almost a year, but had been very much threatened – until the final weeks – by the global pandemic and the unprecedented uncertainty related to it. The forced lockdown and the limits imposed by the state of emergency throughout the spring only increased this feeling of powerlessness.

Descending the stairs of Modena’s City Hall. Photo credit: 10 Photography – Francesca Pradella

That’s why when we eventually said YES, despite all these challenges, we felt all the warmth of that summer sun, along with the feeling that for us 2020 would forever be a very special year and – luckily – not because of COVID19. We also felt that there was such an urgent need for good news this year and that this is our big one! The small-sized intimate wedding ceremony took place in the beautiful venue of Modena’s City Hall – in northern Italy – but this is very much a Tartu story.

Anna grew up in the Latvian town of Jelgava, south of Riga. Many centuries ago, Jelgava served as the capital of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. After completing high school in her hometown, Anna moved to Bradford, in the UK, to study international relations at the city’s university. After moving back to Latvia for a short period, while working at the US Embassy in Riga, she started a new adventure in Estonia’s university city of Tartu, where she moved to continue her studies in the master’s programme in “European Union – Russia Studies”.

Stefano grew up in Modena, in central-northern Italy. A few centuries ago, Modena was also the capital of a small Italian duchy named after the city itself. After completing his bachelor studies at the University of Bologna, Stefano moved to Siena for his doctoral studies, which he completed some years later. As with many Italian academicians, he flew first to Oslo, then to Istanbul, and eventually to Tartu as a post-doctoral researcher.

This is our common denominator. The University of Tartu is where we first met more than six years ago, it is the charming and welcoming town where we fell in love, and the place we are proud to call home today.

In front of Modena’s Cathedral (Duomo). Photo credit: 10 Photography – Francesca Pradella

Today, Anna is Manager of Online Learning Projects and Stefano Associate Professor of European Studies and Programme Director at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies.

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My gold rush in science

The major credit I think Jim and I deserve … is for selecting the right problem and sticking to it. It’s true that by blundering about we stumbled on gold, but the fact remains that we were looking for gold. – Francis Crick

The author of this article, Jaan Aru, in the shoes of an old gold miner, searching for scientific treasures. Image credit: New Zealand Graphic/Wikipedia and Inga Külmoja

No scientist is the same, and people become involved in science for different reasons. I am in science because I’m addicted to the feeling of being on the verge of solving a scientific mystery, discovering scientific “gold”. But as it often happens, a scientist, like any treasure hunter, hits nothing but rocks, and the months and years of explorations remain futile.

I never aspired to become a scientist—it simply happened. In my first year of university studies, I was reading in the library, having stumbled half-accidentally upon the issue of consciousness. How can the whizzing of brain cells create consciousness? How are neural processes linked to conscious perception? I was captivated by the puzzle, and before I realised it—after reading books and journal articles and carrying out my first experiments—I had become a scientist.

It all seems so simple at first. The less you know about a problem, the easier it seems to find a solution. Why couldn’t I be the one to solve the problem of consciousness? So, I grabbed a pickaxe and started on my quest to find “gold”. I ploughed vigorously in various riverbeds, occasionally coming across some yellow nuggets.

Nine years later, after submitting my doctoral thesis, frustration hit—in the nine years, I had not arrived any closer to solving the problem of consciousness. My most important contribution to research was demonstrating, with my colleagues, that the problem of consciousness cannot be solved using the existing experimental approaches to study it. The “gold” was not buried where I had been digging.

In science, it is a common practice to specialise in a discipline and delve deeper into a subject. This makes sense because after having investigated a single topic for years, it would be foolish to write off the investment and start over elsewhere. Therefore, you have only yourself to blame for the poor choice you made early on in your academic career to take up studying the enormous subject of consciousness. You made your own bed—now lie in it for the rest of your life!

Many researchers would do the right thing in this situation and go deeper. But I am hunting for “gold”: I need the feeling that I’m solving a puzzle; I need to believe that I’m closer to finding “gold”. At the very moment that I realised that I was unable to solve the problem of consciousness, it was time to move on. Where else is “gold” to be found?

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