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Once a physicist: Ene Ergma

Ene Ergma has served as the Speaker of Estonia's parliament, the Riigikogu, since 2007

Ene Ergma

How did you become interested in physics?
During my school years I lived in the small Estonian town of Viljandi. At the market, I once heard two women talking about somebody who had gone to Moscow to study plasma physics. I did not know the meaning of this term, but I found some popular-science books about plasma physics and decided that this would be a very interesting subject to study. My first attempt to become a student at Moscow University was unsuccessful, so instead, I started to study physics at Tartu University in Estonia. After two years of studies, some of the astronomers at Tartu suggested that I should study stellar evolution at Moscow University. I was not enthusiastic about astronomy because it had not been an exciting subject for me at school, but they told me that stars are huge plasma spheres with perfectly working thermonuclear reactors inside, and that caught my interest. Today, I understand that it was a great piece of luck that I turned to astrophysics.

What was it like to do physics research under the old Soviet system?
To be physicist in Soviet times meant having more intellectual freedom than many people, since physics was not so heavily influenced by ideology as the humanities and social sciences. Physics research was better provided for, with financial aid from the government, as Soviet officials understood the role of physics in defence. Also, we must remember that the 1960s and 1970s were the era of space research – a romantic time for physics and astrophysics – and many extremely talented young people joined the research.

Why did you go into politics?
I returned to Estonia from Moscow in 1988, when I was asked to take the chair of astrophysics at Tartu University. It was a an exciting time, with perestroika (literally "restructuring") sweeping the entire Soviet Union, and the beginning of a vague hope that Estonia would become an independent country. After Estonia regained its independence in 1991, it was necessary to restructure the Estonian science system. I was part of this activity at Tartu, but from time to time I felt that our official science policy was far from the best. I understood that it was complicated for people outside of politics to change the situation, and therefore I decided to go into politics to be closer to decision-makers. My life in research was interesting, and in the Soviet era I did not care about politics because I hated the totalitarian Soviet regime. But I cared very much about what was going on in Estonia.

What is the greatest challenge in science policy today, either in Estonia or elsewhere?
I think that we need to understand that in order to do high-level research in the natural sciences we need to better concentrate our brain power and financial possibilities. If the European Union wants to become the most competitive alliance in the world, it must change from being an agriculture-based Europe to a knowledge-based – or, even better, innovation-based – Europe. To provide research with large infrastructure facilities, we have to use research money from different countries. We already have good examples, such as CERN, the European Southern Observatory, the European Space Agency (ESA) and so on.

Do you still keep up to date with physics research?
My job does not allow me to do real research. It is impossible. But during the last five years I have put a great deal of effort in helping Estonia join ESA. I strongly believe that the space economy has a great future in the next 10 or 20 years, and little Estonia must use these challenges to its advantage, as it has done in the information and communications technologies. Also, I try to look through online articles in different journals.

Do you have any advice for physics students?
Studying physics is great. I always tell young people that a physics education is the greatest and it allows you to do different things – even to become the president of your parliament! It is very interesting to look at society from a physicist's point of view.

This article appears in the February 2011 issue of Physics World.

last edited: September 11, 2018

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