Lego Animation: My Personal Journey Through Leaf Angles

In the era of global warming and endangered ecosystems, we need a better understanding of how forests and vegetation at large grow.

Vegetation is fundamentally affected by light, which is essential for photosynthesis and plant ‘breathing’. Light transmission through canopy affects forest productivity. Among other things, the transmission of light, or radiation, is controlled by leaf orientation. That is why it is important to measure the leaf angle distribution.

So far, it has been a headache to measure the leaf angle distribution, particularly for trees. Jan Pisek from Tartu Observatory and his colleagues from Harvard University and Université de Montréal have developed and tested a cost-efficient method that can be used virtually by anyone: all you need is a digital camera or a phone equipped with a camera and freely available image processing software.

Jan has created a Lego stop-motion animation to describe the measuring of leaves in an attractive and easy-to-follow way (turn on the subtitles):

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The world’s first robotic vine twists and climbs

Working principles of a robotic vine. Source: Istituta Italiana di Tecnologia (IIT)

Materials scientists at the intelligent materials lab of the University of Tartu have been working with artificial muscles for years, but now they have found a new path – robotic plants. They have indeed built an absolutely unique robot that imitates a botanical vine, able to twist and climb.

Indrek Must, Associate Professor of Soft Robotics at the Institute of Technology of the UT, said that he became inspired to go into plant robotics because the behavior of plants is a largely unexplored field, promising new dimensions and novel possibilities in robotics. Earlier, the materials researcher had been involved with building robotic bugs, in addition to developing artificial muscles.

Taken more broadly, the goal of plant robotics is to imitate processes happening in nature. Although we mostly think of plants as stationary, they do have interesting moving mechanisms. Robotics are being used to imitate such mechanisms.

Compared to common approaches to artificial muscles, the goal is easier to obtain, as it is possible to imitate the turgor pressure of a plant, while the way an artificial muscle works is quite far from natural conditions.

With a robotic vine, one can imitate a mechanism used by plants to move and later develop it, resulting in robots that are useful to humans. This invention can be used in every field involving robotics, from medicine to technology.

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Five intriguing thoughts from psychologist Andero Uusberg

Andero Uusberg. Image credit: Andres Tennus / UT

Andero Uusberg is a senior research fellow at the UT Institute of Psychology. Before starting this position in July of last year, Andero spent three years as a post-doc at Stanford. His research topics vary from regulation of emotions to time perception and mindfulness.

Andero Uusberg gave an extensive interview to Arter, a weekly supplement of Postimees, some months ago. Below is a summary of Andero’s most intriguing thoughts from this interview.

1. We try to remain in a state of flow

Even challenge-seekers move forward step by step; they don’t undertake to achieve the most difficult goal in the first place. Particularly difficult tasks don’t create interest, as chances to succeed are too low. Easy tasks don’t create interest either, as the challenge is too small. However, when the task is difficult but in accordance with abilities, the person gets into the optimum challenge zone.

The flow theory says that humans have intrinsic motivation to stay in this zone. At the same time, this optimum zone is shifting higher all the time, as practice makes the task easier.

2. Mindfulness helps to overcome emotions

Let’s imagine that someone stupidly misbehaves in traffic, and it drives you crazy. One option is to think who this stupid person was and what was wrong about him to behave this way. Another option is to focus on one’s emotions rather than the situation – notice that you are angry and try not to evaluate your emotion as good or bad. Avoiding evaluation helps to reduce emotional rumination about the situation.

There is a lot of evidence showing that different mindfulness practices work, but it is unclear why.

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How I got to spend last summer building rockets

Hello, I am Ayush, and I am a robotics and computer engineering student from the Institute of Technology, University of Tartu. Last summer, I had the chance to work in Latvia at the aerospace technology startup Heliocentric Technologies under the SpaceTEM internship programme. I got to work on rockets! I have been obsessed with everything related to space since childhood, and to get this opportunity was a dream come true.

The main mission for Heliocentric Technologies is to become the first Latvian entity to launch a rocket into space, i.e. to the altitude of 100 km (the Karman line). They have a lot of prior experience and expertise in launching weather balloon platforms, and thus their idea is to launch a rocket from a similar platform, reducing the mass and rocket fuel needed.

The year before the internship had been very interesting for me. Studying in Tartu, I had made new friends, struggled with some of the coursework, learned a lot of new stuff, and, of course, survived the Estonian winter.

At the kick-off event for SpaceTEM interns (me in the centre). Image credit: Ventspils University of Applied Sciences

To gain some more experience, I was looking for a summer internship – that is when I found out about SpaceTEM, which is a joint Interreg programme between Estonia and Latvia. A bunch of companies from both of the countries, in addition to major educational institutions such as University of Tartu, University of Lativa, and Ventspils University College, offer various topics for internships related to space sciences, and the best bit is that it’s paid!

I applied to three different institutions, but Heliocentric Technologies was the first one to contact me. From them, I learnt that I had the opportunity to work on a high-altitude stabilization system for rockets. After a few Skype interviews and understanding more about what my goal was, I was happy to say yes.

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Twins Ege and Efe in the steps of Baer and Pirogov

Ege and Efe
Ege and Efe. Follow them on Instagram. Photo from a personal archive

When Efe and Ege approached the Old Anatomical Theatre, they did not notice me. We had not met before, so it was no wonder. I could not mistake them for anyone else, though, for Ege and Efe are perfect lookalikes. You can see they are twins from a long distance. And it was twins that I was waiting for to chat about their studies and life in Tartu.

Most of the time it is others who get confused. The twins admit that sometimes people think they are one person. They see one of them downstairs, the other one upstairs, and cannot believe their eyes.

Having once mistaken Zeynep (a Turkish female name) for a man, I made sure to check before the interview that Efe and Ege are brothers. I was inclined to think otherwise, though, as Ege is a female name in Estonia.

The twins’ similarity is only increased by identical haircuts and similar clothing. Moreover, Ege and Efe continue each others’ thoughts. They have lived together for 19 years, or a lifetime. The brothers have been separated for no more than two months so far.

That was when Efe came to Estonia for a month as a part of the student exchange programme two years ago. When he came back, Ege left for a month to Belgium. With a little help from Google, Efe found out about the University of Tartu’s medicine studies. Efe’s host family took him on a small tour in Biomedicum. Ege confirms that after seeing his brother so happy about the school and the city, it wasn’t a hard decision to come to Tartu.

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My life story: 23 academic degrees and 239 gold medals

I was born in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1947. It’s a city in the northeastern part of the United States, just south of the Canadian border. Because it was cold and snowy for 4 to 6 months each year, I tried to stay inside as much as possible, waiting for the snow to melt, although I did engage in a few snow ball fights with friends.

Four generations; me as a baby. Photo from the personal archive

I think that remaining indoors for extended periods of time helped me to develop my love of reading, since there wasn’t much else to do. In those days, television consisted of just three stations, so there wasn’t a large selection of programs to choose from.

My favorite television programs in those days were documentaries about World War 2, which had ended just two years before I was born, game shows, news shows, and history programs. During the election season, I watched political programs. I enjoyed watching the election results in presidential election years. I wanted John F. Kennedy to win in 1960, mostly because he was Catholic. Erie was a Catholic city – Italian Catholics on the west side and Polish Catholics on the east side. I was Irish Catholic.

My parents subscribed to three weekly magazines that contained stories about current events. There were many photos and short articles at a reading level that was suitable for 12 year-olds. I tended to look at every photo and read most of the articles. My father used to talk about the war, politics, and current events, which also piqued my interest in these topics.

Going to Catholic schools exposed me to theology and philosophy. We would ask the teacher whether God could make a rock he couldn’t lift, and why non-Catholics couldn’t go to heaven no matter how good they were (because the nuns told us that only Catholics could get into heaven).

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What are Estonians like?

In December, our Institute of Psychology celebrated its 50th anniversary with a conference entitled “Estonian Measures”, where researchers presented their findings on Estonians.

Märt Avandi and Ott Sepp
Estonian actors Märt Avandi and Ott Sepp performing true Estonians
at the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Estonian film.
Image credit: Ülo Josing / ERR Archives

What is the Estonian character like?

Based on research, the Estonian character is not much different from that of other nations; however, the way Estonians perceive themselves is another story. The research, co-authored by Professor of Experimental Psychology Jüri Allik, showed that Estonians’ self-image is based on what they think of Russians. Estonians imagine themselves to be the opposite of Russians.

Estonians believe that Russians are extroverts while Estonians are introverts; Russians speak a lot – Estonians are mostly silent, which is a sign of intelligence; Russians are insistently friendly – Estonians are withdrawn; Russians are lazy and disorderly – Estonians are industrious, orderly, and goal-oriented.

Allik stressed that these are stereotypes which are far from reality.

How much do Estonians eat?

According to the National Institute for Health Development, the average body mass index of an Estonian is 26,2. Anything beyond 25 is considered to be overweight.

Every fifth person’s body mass index in Estonia is over 30. In comparison with 180 countries, Estonia is in 92nd place. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2025, every third person in Estonia will be overweight.

The question is what we do with this knowledge. Jorgen Matsi, a psychologist, head coach, and consultant, says that the usual advice – that especially people who don’t struggle with overweight like to give – is to eat less and move more. “Technically speaking, it is correct, as is the advice to a drowning person to inhale less water and swim more. This means that saying this is not always helpful”.

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