How Did They Build the University in Tartu?

Every day, local citizens and camera-flashing foreigners pass the pillars of the University of Tartu Main Building, not to mention thousands of students along with the lecturers.  In the beginning of the 19th century, this was only a dream.

It was a dream that found its chance to become reality in 1801 when the Keiser Alexander the First finally reached a decision: the university would not be built in Miitava, Kuramaa (today we know it as the Latvian town called Jelgava), but in Tartu, Liivimaa, instead!  Two years later, Johann Willhelm Krause arrived in town and went on to become the architect of the university ensemble in Tartu.

Johann Wilhelm Krause

Johann Willhelm Krause (1757-1828), the architect of the University of Tartu. Photo credit: Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation

Enlightenment brought a novel conception of the university, a vision of the architecture that was suitable to the era and was widespread from Europe to the United States. In many ways, the student campuses that formed in the 19th century have become a reflection of the changes that took place in the social consciousness and inter-societal relationships, and paved the way to the development of the modern world of today. In this tumultuous rising tide, the architectural ensemble of the University of Tartu was born, one of the most genuine and best-preserved examples of a university of the Enlightenment era.

When speaking about our alma mater, we have to start from the year 1632, when the Swedish King Gustav II Adolf founded one of the four universities in the Swedish empire, then known as Academia Gustaviana, in Tartu. In the 18th century the Great Northern War forced the university to cease activities, but the university was reopened in 1802. After some disputes about where to locate the university, the new emperor of Russia, Keiser Alexander the First, conclusively designated Tartu as the location.

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Introducing the Relationship between Human Rights Issues and Philosophy of Biology

It has quite often been assumed that philosophy is a discipline that is performed in “ivory towers” and hence lacks practical importance. Our research team at the Chair of Philosophy of Science of the Department of Philosophy has strong practical inclinations, which means that among other research interests we are demonstrating the practical relevance of the issues of philosophy of science to different other domains of human life.


Cognitive evolution. Thinking monkey. Image credit: Pixabay Creative Commons

This summer I had a great opportunity to demonstrate the intersection of philosophy of science and socio-political human affairs from my own personal angle by visiting two conferences* that were not so strictly dedicated to philosophy and giving a presentation on the relationship between some questions of philosophy of biology and human rights issues (see the end of this article for more information about the conferences). 

The first conference, “Human Rights in an Age of Ambiguity“, discussed the new and transformed human rights issues which have emerged in the light of global political, economic, structural, normative, and ideational changes that have taken place during the last decades. The ambiguity that is referred to in the title derives from the fact that a human rights regime that seemed to rest on a global consensus and appeared to be stable is undergoing rapid and deep transformation. One of the biggest challenges is the emergence of non-Western powers, which brings new human rights issues, such as the problems of a global refugee regime, the threats of terrorism and other security challenges for civilian and basic human rights protection, climate change resulting in forced migration, and other humanitarian crises, etc.

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Less Is More: The Modern Working Environment Paralyses The Brain

The human brain is the most creative and flexible computing device in the known universe. Unfortunately, the modern working environment often turns this magical machine into a pocket calculator.

Intuitively, it seems that being a workaholic is nowadays a key prerequisite for success, given the overabundance of information. We want to be on top of things; therefore, multitasking has become standard: several files open at the same time, Facebook and a newspaper open in the web browser. We also like to be accessible all the time (“always on”), to be able to react immediately to every e-mail or text message. And since there is always more information than there is time, workdays tend to be longer and longer. This lifestyle is addictive, and on the surface it seems ultra-efficient. In reality, these are all bad practices if you want to get the most out of your brain and be creative.


We often need to do several things at once, but our brains are clumsy multitaskers. Photo credit:

The brain is by nature a really clumsy multitasker, and this is one of the greatest problems of today’s workplace. When the tasks at hand require some thinking, the brain performs them one by one – serially, not simultaneously. Thus, effective multitasking is mostly an illusion. Each time there is a work-related call or a beep from the phone, a notification from social media, the brain has to switch from one task to another. Importantly, there is a cost involved every time you switch tasks, as switching eats up some of your thinking resources.

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Rait Ratasepp: Introducing Estonian Ultratriathlon to the World

Could you complete a triathlon – 3.8 kilometres swimming, 180 kilometres riding a bike, and finally 42.2 kilometres running?  In other words, swim eight lengths of the Empire State Building, ride a bicycle from London to Manchester, and finally run 77 times around the Colosseum in Rome? That sounds almost impossible, right? Not for everyone.

Rait Ratasepp, a graduate of the University of Tartu, recently participated in the Deca Ultrathriathlon of Switzerland, where he had to complete the triathlon distance not only once but ten times! The competition lasted ten consecutive days, meaning one full triathlon distance per day, ten days in a row.

Rait during the opening of the Deca Ultratriathlon / Photo credit: Katrin Meier, Stefan Meier / Ultratriathlon Switzerland

Such a competition requires an enormous physical and mental effort, even from a well-trained endurance sport professional. The word “ultra” itself refers to both “extreme” and “supreme”. Rait finished second at the deca ultratriathlon – covering the entire distance took him 108 hours, 48 minutes, and 57 seconds, which, by the way, beat the previous world record.

Facts about what happens to a person’s body while going through such difficult physical challenges has been an interest for many scientists. Among others, Rait has been observed by scientists from University of Tartu, especially from the Institute of Sport Sciences and Physiotherapy.

Rait is the first Estonian to make it to the absolute top of an ultra-endurance sport in the world. His results push the limits both in Estonia and the world. But, as Rait says himself, it’s much more important to push the limits inside yourself and for yourself.

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Preventing a Cold Starts With Washing Your Hands

Colourful leaves and gorgeous sunsets – autumn is simply beautiful, right? Unfortunately, this season also has a downside: it is the time when everybody seems to be falling ill. Each one of us has probably experienced the feeling of sneezing ten times during an important meeting. Therefore it seems appropriate to ask: why do we become ill and what are the ways to protect ourselves from colds?

The common belief that a cold is caused by “catching a cold” is not true.  Common colds are caused by viruses which infect the nose and throat mucosa (the upper respiratory tract). There are many of these viruses, but the most common ones to cause a cold are rhinoviruses. And the “good news” is – there are more than a hundred different types of them! The great number of different viruses is the reason why people become ill with colds again and again.


When sneezing or coughing, cover your mouth with a sleeve or a handkerchief. Image credit: WikiHow / Creative Commons

A cold develops when people are infected with a virus to which they are not yet immune. Grown-ups have colds less often than children because they have suffered from many viral infections already and have developed the necessary antibodies which prevent them from getting sick again. Children who are younger than six months also experience colds less because they are protected by the antibodies which were transferred from the mother to the foetus during pregnancy. These antibodies disappear from children’s blood over time, though.

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Maie Kiisel: The Paradox of Environmental Awareness

My interest towards society grew out of my interest towards the environment. I have been an environmental activist and researched environmental movements in Estonia, as well as the way the environment is depicted in the media, consumption, eco-innovation, and ways to make people act in a more ecological and sustainable manner.


Maie Kiisel. Photo from a personal archive.

Behind all of this experience are some unanswered questions that still haunt me. How is it possible that after the decades-long environmental education and the highest environmental awareness of all time the global ecological footprint is still growing? What is it in a person’s activities and way of living in a society that causes the ecological footprint? And why is it relatively complicated to decrease it?

The tent pillar of sustainable development is thought to be people’s knowledge of their actions’ impact on the environment. Knowledge is supposed to make them value the environment more and it should in turn lead towards deeds that save the environment. The latter leads to a decrease in the ecological footprint and is a step towards saving the planet.

Lately, however, many scientists have demonstrated that knowledge and values play a relatively small role in promoting environmentally friendly behavior. A person’s level of involvement in the practical organization of everyday life has much more impact on one’s behavior than one’s own wish to save the environment.

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Pocket Monsters Conquering the World

People used to collect all kinds of stuff in ages past. Some people collected stamps, others matchbox cars, and others cat figures made of porcelain or stickers. I, for one, collected bubblegum wrappers. Right now, it feels that if somebody is collecting something, it could only be pocket monsters – Pokémons. What could one get from such a virtually real collection of fictional creatures?

Pikachu Parade

Pikachu Parade. Image credit: Yoshikazu Takada / Flickr Creative Commons

This summer pocket monsters conquered the world. No kidding. They were everywhere and there were more and more people catching them as well, resulting in Pokémon Go becoming the most popular mobile game in the world – in just a few weeks. An analysis performed by Axiom Capital Management showed that in mid-July 2016 alone, some 450,000 persons all over the world hunted the monsters daily. Pokémon Go players spent even more time in the environment of their game than in Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, or Tinder. As a search term, ‘Pokémon Go’ was even more popular in July than the usual web search engine favorite word – ‘porn’.

Certainly, one of the reasons for the great number of users was really good timing – the game was released in summer. With autumn creeping in, the first excitement of catching the monsters has started to fade, and both here and elsewhere there is an increasing number of Pokémon hunters whose monster collection was locked down because of the beginning of the school year. By the end of August, the number of daily players had fallen to 30,000, according to an analysis by Axiom Capital Management.

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