Postcard From Estonia

When I arrived in Tallinn, Estonia, on a trip to visit some local chemists, I didn’t expect the city to be so wired. Here, even the green spaces have small signs that announce how to get connected. estoniasign.jpg For example, to access this park’s wireless password, you just need to send a text message. You'll then get a response with the correct code. Paying for street parking or bus fare is also just a text message away. Even on a bus through the countryside, I snagged some of the free wireless that blankets most of the country, including the bucolic middle of nowhere. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised by all the high-tech connections here. After all, Skype, the popular software that allows people to make free telephone calls over the Internet, was developed in Tallinn. Although Skype’s headquarters is now in Luxembourg, Tallinn’s Skype offices sit in a suburban science and technology park just beneath a snazzy food fermentation laboratory, where researchers were taste-testing a probiotic ice cream as I toured through. Also connected to the science park is Tallinn University of Technology's (TUT) chemistry department. I spent two days there chatting with chemistry professors, staff scientists, and students in their well-equipped offices and labs. A lot has changed since Estonia gained independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. After some rough years in the 1990s, the country took off economically. Then in 2004 , its 1.4 million citizens joined the EU. GDP growth rates that were already on the upswing hit 11% in 2006. Things have slowed a bit now--the country is expected to have a GDP growth rate of about 2.7% in 2008, only slightly above the EU’s expected 2.0% growth rate. Touring the chemistry department’s organic, analytical, and bioinorganic research facilities, I could have been in well-equipped labs anywhere. Their building, which is part of the science and tech park, underwent major renovations in 2005, with university, government, and private financing. The department has also been the recipient of some major equipment grants from the EU. Little stickers with the EU flag are everywhere—on tabletop mass specs, HPLCs, and atomic absorbance spectrometers, to name a few. (The arrow points to such a sticker on this microwave synthesis platform.) tallinn139small2.jpg Every once in a while, you glimpse a relic of the country’s past: Old Russian synthesis textbooks on bookcases. Or those with keen observation skills will note the antique melting-point apparatus sitting to the left of the microwave synthesis equipment--it came from an East German company back in the 1970s (or 80s?). But really, in TUT’s chemistry department, former vestiges of the Soviet Union are rare, and sophisticated apparatus is more the norm.

Author: Sarah Everts

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  1. Why didn’t you expect Estonia to be so wired…? Because it seems so remote to the US? Just curious…

  2. Frankly, I don’t know that the US is that wired. I can never successfully connect my iPod Touch to the “free public wifi” network that pops up when in D.C., and I live in the heart of downtown.

  3. I travel a lot for work… now mostly in Europe, but before I moved to Germany I was getting some solid airmiles around the US. And I’ve never gotten a useful wireless signal in any park anywhere until Estonia. I was even online in the middle of the Estonian countryside… In equivalent places in the U.S. I’d probably struggle to get a cellphone signal. To boot, I sometimes find the wireless signal in nice hotels to be dodgy at best. So I basically I don’t expect such excellent omnipresent wireless, not in the US and not in Europe. It’s nice to have your expectations exceeded now and again…