What About the Truth of Science?

In the famous “Epigram on Sir Isaac Newton”, the poet Alexander Pope wrote:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.

In reply to this, J. C. Squire (1884-1958) continued:

It did not last: the Devil howling “Ho!
Let Einstein be!” restored the status quo.

In the twentieth century, the picture of our world has changed entirely. In the past, the notions of space and time were accurate and robust, allowing a proper and robust cognitive organisation of object. The evidence of space-time order would enable us to set a causal structure that regulates the external world. Scientists were looking for a simple and strong theory to explain the regularity of the world, whereas this world would have to conform to the mathematical language.

New description of the world

Then, when Einstein’s relativity and quantum theory had appeared in the scientific panorama, the assumptions of classical physics, perfectly intuitive and in accord with the most common perception of the world, were deconstructed one by one.

Some strange things happen in this new description of the world. There is no precise measure of time and space: a quantum object has no defined properties (we can only detect an electron in a specific volume of space, regardless of the instrument we use).

There is no objectivity about the experiment: an experiment on a quantum object is always altered by the observer. There is no static universe: our universe is, according to Hubble, constantly expanding. Stop reading for a moment and imagine something that is constantly expanding. We are living in such space!

Moreover, there are fewer practical experiments and more mental experiments to provide conclusions about the world. Einstein used abstract examples to develop both special relativity theory and general relativity. Schrödinger developed his famous example of the cat to illustrate quantum mechanics theory.

Alice in Wonderland

The allegory between the lost man in the quantum physics and Alice in Wonderland is nothing new. Image: the cover illustration, by E. Gertrude Thomson, of The Nursery “Alice” by Lewis Carroll

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Digging Deep In Archaeology: The Orange and The Scurvy

When I was a young and innocent BSc student, I was assigned a study about an Egyptian mummy. I was incredibly proud of my Egyptian boy, whose name was Ptahmose. He was around 35 years old and had his brain removed through his nose, as expected of every good mummy from the Greco-Roman period.

One doubt, however, remained stuck in my young scientist mind for years. Namely, Ptahmose’s skull had signs of scurvy, a metabolic disease related to low intake of vitamin C, often connected to diets poor in vegetables and citrus fruit. Why on earth was a wealthy Egyptian guy, with access to as many greens and fruits as he wanted, lacking in vitamin C? As no information about his diet was available, this question remained locked in a small drawer in my brain for the remainder of my studies. I had the scurvy in my study, but not the orange (or, in his case, the lack of it).

Everyday science in pyjamas

Five years and an MSc in biological anthropology later, I got involved with health, food, and bones once again, but this time in Estonia. I know the first thought that comes to mind when you think of a “biological anthropologist” is flawless Dr Temperance Brennan dressed as Wonder Woman in an episode of the famous TV show “Bones”, with her hot and loyal partner Seeley Booth. Technically, that was forensic anthropology, but this does not prevent me from receiving the evergreen comment: “Hey, you are like Bones!”

I am really sorry to destroy this myth by telling you that biological anthropology is definitely less sexy and glossy, involving hours, days, and sleepless nights in pyjamas, learning how to side a metatarsal or how some vertebrae may develop discal herniation – particularly when your specialization is ancient bone pathology. However, archaeological human remains can tell you rather unexpected tales, sometimes beyond expectations.


Archaeological human remains can tell you rather unexpected tales, sometimes beyond expectations. Image credit: Andres Tennus / UT

Double-checking historians and chroniclers

My research brought me to a PhD project on medieval and early modern Estonian populations. This period was marked by complex political, economic, and socio-cultural changes, which dug under the surface, burned deep into Estonian culture and consciousness, and transmuted this area in the country we know today.

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The Secret Colours of Maltese Fishing Boats

Strolling along Malta’s coast, you’ll be mesmerised by the rainbow of traditional fishing boats ambling on the water—that and all the eyes ogling at you from their bows. Science portal ERR Novaator Editor in Chief Katre Tatrik takes a closer look at the hidden meaning behind the luzzu’s colours.

The Maltese fishing boat luzzu dates back to the time of the ancient Phoenicians. For generations, Maltese fishermen have painted them in a kaleidoscope of bright colours, turning them into a national icon. But is there rhyme or reason to the hues they choose?

Lifelong fishermen, brothers Charles (62) and Carmelo (70) from Marsaxlokk, paint their luzzus twice a year in bold blues, reds, and yellows. It’s no easy task, requiring thorough cleaning and six layers of paint. Despite their dedication, Charles and Carmelo, like many others, are largely unaware of the hidden meanings the colours on their boats carry. ‘They’re all the same,’ Carmelo says. ‘It’s just for beauty.’ Charles adds that ‘these boats have always looked the way they look.’

Malta’s traditional fishing boats ambling on the water. Photo: Pixabay

But in 2016, Prof. Anthony Aquilina from the University of Malta embarked on a project that would uncover more. ‘Contrary to what you have been told, there is a lot of meaning in the way our traditional boats are painted,’ he explains. Aquilina edited and published The Boats of Malta – The Art of the Fisherman, written by world-famous anthropologist Desmond Morris.  Continue reading

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Gamification of History: Explaining Soviet Culture Through Digital Formats

Not so long ago, students were often told that “there are no what-ifs in history”. Contemporary history education has largely given up the idea of a singular and linear way of narrating the past. However, many history educators are still struggling to find ways to incorporate multiple perspectives and controversial narratives into history class, especially when the topic is an emotional one.

The digital learning project “History on Screen”, developed by semioticians of the University of Tartu as a part of the Õpiveski programmeimplies that there are many different stories that can be told about the past and that playing around with them can lead to a deeper understanding of the nature of history.

Through the example of Estonian Leelo Tungal’s novel “The Little Comrade” and its film adaptation, we teach high school students to acquire different historical perspectives, analyze sources, and develop historical literacy. The platform includes a map of the story-world and three theoretical chapters on different topics: mediation of the past, the role of perspective, and cultural memory and memory conflicts.

3 chapters

Time and history: three theoretical chapters of the digital learning project “History on Screen”. Image credit: Alexandra Milyakina and Opsti OÜ

We argue that our relationship with the past is a complex process, which is in line with the idea of ‘historical culture’ proposed by German history scholar Jörn Rüsen. Each person is not just a passive receiver of historical facts, but also plays a creative role both in reception and dissemination of different presentations of the past in varied media. Apart from reading history textbooks and listening to teachers’ lectures, people learn by listening to parents and grandparents, watching TV, and visiting museums. Continue reading

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Widen Your Horizons: Meet Our Scientists and Their Work

Did you know that our university’s scientists have their own Instagram account, which is managed only by them? Meet our researchers in their fieldwork, lab experiments, and discoveries! Photos are free for use by all – please indicate the author.  @unitartuscience

This is a unique project that introduces the achievements and daily activities of our university researchers through social media and through their own eyes in a way that inspires and increases interest among young people, the main users of Instagram, in science.


Today, approximately 20 scientists from different fields participate in the photo-blog project: geography, entomology, theology, robotics, plant genetics, ethnology, history, molecular biology, physics and electrochemia, evolutionary biology, philosophy, animal ecology, etc.

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Socio-Economic and Ethnic Segregation on the Rise

University of Tartu Professor of Urban and Population Geography Tiit Tammaru is currently a visiting professor at Delft University of Technology in Holland. He gave an interview on his research to the local Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment. Tammaru’s main fields of research include migration, ethnic minorities, and social inequalities. Below is a slightly shortened transcript of our professor’s interview.

“We studied socio-economic segregation in European cities with many teams all across Europe, and the main finding was that segregation has increased everywhere. Rich and poor people are moving to different neighborhoods. What we also see is an increasing socio-economic segregation on the one hand and ethnic segregation on the other. The number of ethnic minorities is growing in European cities, so these two dimensions of segregation overlap more and more.

Swedish flag in between buildings

Surprisingly, Stockholm is an example of an increasing segregation. Photo by Jonathan Brinkhorst on Unsplash

One example where segregation grew a lot was a bit surprising to us — it was Stockholm. We often think of Sweden as a social democratic welfare state with very low levels of segregation, but segregation has increased a lot. There are three different factors that make it happen in Stockholm.

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Saving Shark Babies

Sharks are a vital part of marine ecology, keeping everything beneath them in the food chain in check. But they’re being caught and consumed at an alarming rate, and people aren’t even realising it. UT Senior Research Communication Specialist Randel Kreitsberg writes about Sharklab Malta founder Greg Nowell’s work in raising awareness and preserving these fantastic creatures.

I’ll pick you up at 2.45,’ Greg says casually. ‘AM?’ ‘Yes,’ he smiles.

There is a one hour gap, between three and four in the morning, before the Pixkerija (fish market) in Marsa opens to the public. This is the time when fishermen arrive with their catch, but their clients, chefs and managers of Maltese restaurants, have yet to appear.

Greg Nowell (in the middle) is „responsible“ for saving almost 300 shark babies and releasing into wild. Photo: Randel Kreisberg

It is also when Greg Nowell, founder of the Sharklab Malta elasmobranch conservation group, and a small crowd of volunteers inspect the shelves and boxes of fresh catch. They’re looking for two local catshark species—nursehounds and lesser spotted catsharks—so they can cut them open and save the viable eggs still inside the females in the hopes of releasing them back into the wild.

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