Inventive Tartu

more than a year ago
As many people already know, Tartu is the “City of Good Thoughts”. A big reason for this has to do with the shear volume of innovations and inventions that have been produced in the city, or by people who have been educated or lived here. Ever since its conception in 1632, Tartu University has been an important centre for research and development for students throughout Northern Europe and even Russia. Although there have been a good many amazing discoveries and in fact a good many we can’t even begin to understand, we will mention just some of the more interesting ones.

Karl Ernst von Baer
The discovery of the mammalian ovum
Karl Ernst von Baer, a Baltic German naturalist, biologist and zoologist (loodus- ja arstiteadlane) naturalist and medical scientist and zoologist was born in Estonia in 1792 and partially educated at Tartu University. Von Baer discovered the mammalian ovum in 1826 while teaching at Königsberg University (Kaliningrad) and his work would ultimately lead to the description of the human ovum. So, although there isn’t any ‘sex’ in the Estonian language, an Estonian is responsible for the discovery of the one of the key ingredients of human reproduction. Even after his death, Baer still leads a relatively good life. Every Walpurgis Night students from Tartu University wash the head of his statue on Toome hill with champagne. His likeness also decorates the Estonian two-kroon note - - personally we feel one of the founding fathers of modern embryology deserves at least a 50, but nobody asked us.

Struve’s Geodetic Arc
Another discovery that falls into the oldies but goodies category is the “Struve Geodetic Arc”, which spans the disciplines of astronomy, cartography and naturally, geodesy. Initiated
Struve Geodetic Arc
by Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve while a professor at the University of Tartu, the Geodetic Arc is a chain of survey triangulation that span 2,820km from Hammerfest, Norway all the way to the Black Sea. The arc was instrumental in mapping the exact size and shape of the earth, a rather important finding if we do say so ourselves. Struve’s arc is so significant that in 2005 it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site contains 34 original station points including that of the Old Tartu Observatory, which has been commemorated with a plaque. The observatory on Toome Hill is currently undergoing renovations and will in the near future, house a museum dedicated to early astronomy and Struve’s work.

Just to prove that Tartu continues to produce innovations to this day, we’ll let you in on an interesting discovery that could very well prove an effective defence against harmful bacteria such as salmonella. ME-3, or Lactobacillus fermentum for you nerdy types, is a form of probiotic discovered by University of Tartu professor Marika Mikelsaar and her team in the intestinal tract of a healthy Estonian child. The award-winning bacteria has already proved very useful in fighting off digestive based bacterial infections, rebuilding of the immune system, and the reduction of food induced allergic conditions. Research is still ongoing and new trials with ME-3 are also showing promise as antibiotic enhancers. ME-3 has received patents worldwide and is commercially available in yoghurt products and supplements in Estonia, Finland and throughout Scandinavia and the Baltics. If you’d like to sample some products containing this helpful bacteria while in Estonia, they are marketed under the name Dr Hellus. Who knows, yoghurt containing ME-3 just might even become available at your local grocer in the near future.

When things go wrong they can also go right
Although necessity just may be the mother of most inventions, equally to blame for many of the world’s greatest scientific feats are just pure and simple accidents. A few years ago in a laboratory in Tartu, Martin Järvekülg and some other students were trying to create fibres and membranes out of various metallic elements. Unfortunately the experiment failed, however, the trial was not at all a failure. Järvekülg discovered that when examined closely, one of the elements, hafnium, had changed form into a roll-shaped microstructure not identified before. The new material is quite tough and has a higher melting temperature than volcanic lava, making it perfect for applications ranging from aerospace to artificial implants. Subsequent experiments have reproduced stable results with other metals as well and patents are pending. Perhaps the next time you use your bionic arm to collect geological formations on the surface of Mars, it’ll contain hafnium roll-shaped microstructures developed at the University of Tartu – one can only dream.

The discoveries, inventions and innovations brought to us by Tartu are numerous indeed and the innovations continue. Currently there are experiments underway involving some pretty powerful lasers, super tiny nano-technology and contracts to University spin-offs with some very lucrative firms such as Samsung and Philips to mention only a few. Tartu is indeed the “City of Good Thoughts”, who knows what they’ll think of next.


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