The Sun – trying to understand the dragon

Nina Gieseler

Nina Gieseler, Collegium Researcher, Space Research Laboratory

The Sun, humanity’s personal star, is known by all of us. We all have embraced it’s warmth, enjoyed beautiful sunsets, or experienced a sunburn. Like everybody might have their own perspective on the Sun, my personal relationship is a particular one. While I really enjoy sunbathing I see the Sun also as a kind of employer. The Sun produces what I study: energetic particles, accelerated to high energies in solar eruptions.

I am, therefore, very familiar with the Sun’s rough side, its dangerous aspects, its ugly face. I imagine the Sun as a dragon. Right now it is a sleepy dragon, just about to fully wake up. That might sound a bit scary, and yes, it is! While the Sun never stops to shine, this other kind of radiation, the energetic particle radiation, occurs sporadically, and if it hits Earth, it can harm all life! We call this space weather, and when these solar storms blow, you better get inside if you are an astronaut; you better power off if you are a satellite. And you better don’t fly with a plane over the poles, where the Earth’s magnetic field can’t significantly shield you.

The last deep-sleep phase was in 2019/2020, characterized by the dragon not changing its appearance, nothing happening, boring even. This is called solar minimum. We know this phase but we also know what comes after! The question is, “when will it happen and how bad will it be?” Continue reading

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Interdisciplinarity as a strategy

Mona Mannevuo is a Postdoctoral Researcher at TIAS and the Department of Contemporary History

This post is based on a talk given at the international online symposium Across Boundaries in Sciences. The event was hosted by All European Academics (ALLEA) and the Council of Finnish Academies on 5 May 2021. The program, talks and more detailed information of the event can be found here.

Interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity… The cherished idea of crossing boundaries in science has many names. Sometimes, we forget that boundary crossings may be a risky business for young academics working in highly precarious and competitive academia.

Although I am at an early stage of my career, I have a multidisciplinary academic background in the humanities and social sciences. I did my MA in cultural history (2009), but I defended my PhD in gender studies (2015). After finishing this PhD, I was employed as a research fellow in a FiDiPro project ‘Social Science for the Twenty-First Century: Employment Activation and the Changing Economy-Society Relation’. Subsequently, I was recruited to the ‘Tackling Biases and Bubbles in Participation’ (BIBU) consortium. While contributing to this project, my research environment was the Centre for Parliamentary Studies.

Since January 2021, I have been working on my own three-year post-doctoral project at Turku Institute for Advanced Studies. At TIAS, my affiliation is contemporary history, but I am also leading a project titled ‘Communication across borders: Shifting boundaries of politics, science and public relations’, which is funded by the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation.

Working in these different environments has taught me several things. First of all, my background has equipped me with rich knowledge of various fields and perhaps even strategic tools to survive in contemporary academia. However, academia is quite conventional and hierarchical, and I sometimes feel like an outsider (see Interdisciplinary Madness comic). In fact, I can feel a bit queasy when someone asks what my actual field of study is. I would like to pretend that it is just my curiosity that has led me to this situation, but truthfully, it is the difficulty of making long-term plans in contemporary academia.

Academic life as a succession of projects

Whereas ‘interdisciplinarity’ sounds exciting as a buzzword, the reality in interdisciplinary projects can be quite exhaustive and draining. In particular, early-career scholars often need to change topics rather drastically according to the themes of the projects for which they are employed.

It also feels like the society puts unrealistic expectations on interdisciplinary projects: they are expected to change the world, solve societal maladies and yield an astronomical return on invest. The problem is not the idea of interdisciplinarity but the project culture in which, paraphrasing Eve Boltanski and Luc Chiapello (2007), the actual content of the project seems less important than the general impression of networked scholars’ ability to juggle competing commitments at once.

But science is not magic. In 2015, when Nature published a special issue on interdisciplinarity, the editorial stated that ‘true interdisciplinary science cannot be rushed’. We may have hopes, but interdisciplinarity research is a risky business, because it often takes time to achieve results. It also takes time to build academic relationships and to see the value in other approaches, but competitive, fast-paced academia does not always foster collegiality.

Therefore, as the Nature editorial continued, we must rethink hierarchies: ‘All involved must be confident that colleagues from other disciplines use equal academic rigour and scientific standing, even if the methods used in rival fields seem alien’. Otherwise, the project exists as one main subject that depletes most of the resources and leaves the partners as orbiting satellites.

The main risk for young scholars working on interdisciplinary projects is that they may not offer career advancement but, rather, advance someone else’s strategic agenda. Thus, early-career scholars need to be acutely aware of the possible power relations in interdisciplinary projects. It is easy to make a project look interdisciplinary, but it is on the ‘shop floor’ where epistemological boundaries are negotiated.

In reality, the political economy of academia does not encourage young scholars to take the risk of crossing boundaries. Instead, they learn to promote interdisciplinarity within proper limits. They learn to ask critical questions, but not too critical, because there is no time for that. They learn to follow their curiosity, but not too much; interesting issues are noted but never actually explored, because the next project is waiting.

The order of knowledge

The problems in interdisciplinary project culture are not entirely new. They were already puzzling critical scholars in the 1950s. In The Organization Man (1956), William H. Whyte ponders how ‘the bureaucratization of the scientist’ leads to ‘projectism’, where scholars play a role set for them by funding committees with the hope of producing a sophisticated research design:

As one young scientist, Walter Roberts puts it: ‘There is a tremendous difference between science as it is done in the laboratory and science as it is reported. True science is helter-skelter, depending on one’s hunches, angers, and inspirations, and the research itself is done in a very personal fashion. Thirty or forty years ago [in the 1920s] it was written up this way. In reporting a great discovery a scientist would say, ‘I was working on such-and-such reaction when I dropped some sulphuric acid by mistake. When I examined it I found, to my surprise, a strange thing going on…’ But today nobody would write it up this way.

It seems, then, that academics have struggled with the idea of instrumental, top-down, problem-focused research for decades. What worries me about the current trend of evidence-based policymaking is that it may give the impression that there is some apolitical, pragmatic way to turn research into the administrative language of ‘best practices’ and ‘what works’. Instead, we have to admit that uncertain times are filled with messy, conflicting interests; the more evidence we have, the more decisions and selections we must make and the more accountable we are for our actions.

Interdisciplinarity as a buzzword may give an impression of consensus. However, critical interdisciplinary research is far from finding the one best solution. Transformative interdisciplinary fields, such as cultural studies and science and technology studies, emerged from the various disciplinary subfields. Indeed, the most interesting problems often evolve in the margins, and they are so strange that they cannot be understood or explained without consulting various actors within and outside the university. From a critical perspective, interdisciplinarity is a strategy – not for instrumental purposes but for restructuring the order of knowledge.

 

References:

Boltanski, Luc & Chiapello, Eve. The New Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Gregory Elliott. Verso, 2007. Originally published 1999.

Editorial, ‘Mind Meld’. Nature, Volume 525 Issue 7569, 16 September 2015.

Whyte, William H. The Organization Man. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. Originally published 1956.

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Vettä ja voimalinjoja: elämän suurten valintojen äärellä

Dosentti, Jetro J. Tuulari
TSCMT kollegiumtutkija
Kliininen laitos, psykiatria

Olen juuri aloittanut kollegiumtutkijan tehtävässä Oxfordin yliopistossa vietetyn jakson jälkeen. Pian sen jälkeen kun tulin valituksi tähän pestiin, ilmestyi tällä palstalla Teemu Niirasen blogikirjoitus (07/2020), jossa käsiteltiin lääkäritutkijan uran vaiheita ja tutkimusryhmän johtajan varsinaisia esihenkilötehtäviä. Se herätti ajattelemaan matkaa, jolle urallani olisin pian lähdössä sekä palautti miettimään aikaisempia valintoja.

Kollegiumtutkijan tehtävä oli erilainen päätepiste kuin aiemmin. Aikaisemmin uran suuret valinnat kiteytyvät usein kahteen vaihtoehtoon: ammattisotilas vai lääkäri, yliopisto-opettaja vai aivotutkija, kliinikko vai tutkijalääkäri, tutkimustyön jatkaminen kotimaassa vai post doc ulkomailla. Tästä eteenpäin valinta lienee enemmän: ollako vai eikö olla tutkimusryhmän johtaja. Ja jos vastaus on kyllä, minne olen kuljettamassa omaa tutkimustani aiheen, menetelmien ja aineistojen osalta.

Kirjoitin hiljattain vaativan ERC Starting Grant – hankehakemuksen ja nyt kun olen ehtinyt vetää hieman happea tiukan rutistuksen jälkeen huomaan pohtivani, miten nyt päivänpolttava ja haussa toivottavasti vaaditulla tavalla “innovatiivinen” tutkimussuunta on todennäköisesti vain välivaihe seuraavaan. Se on lohdullinen ajatus. Aina on varaa uusiutua ja sitä jopa edellytetään.

Olen tehnyt suuret uran valinnat asuessani asunnoissa, joissa on ollut lähistöllä vettä ja voimalinjoja. Mika Waltarin hahmo Turms Kuolematon keräsi kiven elämänsä merkityksellisillä hetkillä. Oma muistojeni ankkuri on vähemmän runollinen, mutta luultavasti lenkkeilen taas voimalinjojen kautta seuraavaa hanketta suunnitellessa.

Saavutettuasi huipun jatka kiipeämistä.
– Zen-sananlasku

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Ants and Hospitality

Helena Duffy is a Collegium Researcher at TIAS and the Department of Literary Studies

I have been invaded, I am under siege. There was one of them first. A fast-moving, black spot on the kitchen counter. Then two, three, twenty, three hundred. Moving forward, swaying lines. The man from the management company looking after the terrace where I live tells me that it’s a very Finnish problem. “Every other rivitalo has ants”, he says. My landlady (a biologist) recommends a “product”, just as if it were a shampoo that was to give my hair more volume and shine. In “Prisma”, I locate a shelf full of ant “products”, which, as I later read on the internet, kill the ants by acting on their nervous system. I imagine a Novichok agent-type poison and an ant dying in terrible agony. No. I buy vinegar, a cheap packet of coffee, washing soda and a big packet of salt. I locate lavender and pepper mint in the set of sauna oils. With these scents, I will tell the ants they are unwelcome; they will understand and go. As simple as that. But they don’t listen or can’t hear.

What to do? I talk to mum, of course, but I don’t get the answer I need (“you need to learn to coexist with the ants”). I wish I could go and see a rabbi. But what if he tells me to poison the ants? Or, worse still, what if he tells me that I have to take the decision myself and then live with it for the rest of my life. For lack of a real one, I conjure up an imaginary rabbi and go through various arguments. Ok. It is my house, you (the ants) have come in uninvited, I have the right to defend myself. Then the ants’ defending barrister gets to her feet and asks me where is my unconditional Derridean hospitality about which I so eloquently and passionately write in my work. Changing her tone, she says that the terrace had been built in the woods, ants’ legitimate territory. So I am the intruder, not them. No, no, no. The house has been here for thirty years, so I am the legitimate tenant. Human law clearly doesn’t work here. God’s law? Moral law?

Or should I look for an answer in philosophy and literature, my familiar stomping ground? I don’t have far to travel. The Jewish mother of Hélène Cixous, on whose book, The Day I Wasn’t There (2000), I have been working recently, fumigates her clinic with a German product which “killed all the pests”, but which, surprisingly, was banned after the war. Her daughter says: “One cannot kill what one can see”. I can see the ants all right. So what? I serve them the Novichok agent-type “product” in a bait, they crawl away and die out of my sight, and the next day no ants in my kettle, dishwasher, honey, sugar, oven, fridge, butter, yoghurt, bread bin, dustbin. Or perhaps, to rephrase Cixous following Levinas, “You cannot kill the one whose face you can see and whom you can look in the eye.”

It’s widely known that Levinas didn’t care for animals, let alone ants. Ok, there is Bobby, but the stray dog greeting Jewish POWs with cheerful barking and tail wagging interests the philosopher only insofar as the dog recognises a human in him. Despite Levinas’s pledge to rescue Bobby from the slavery of symbolism, Levinas enslaves him as a sign of his own humanness. And so Bobby floats out of the camp and out of the narrative, his lot a matter of indifference to the philosopher. At least you can look the dog in the eye. Have a face-to-face with the dog (but not with a snake, according to Levinas, for whom the snake simply doesn’t have a face). But an ant? Where is the border between what deserves to live and what deserves no moral consideration? Size? Intelligence? Colour? Shape of the skull? And who am I, in any case, to install this border, shift it, erase it?

Agamben: zoe (the naked life) and bios (life in the polis). Is the ant the naked, mere life that knows no culture, law, morality, language, writing, philosophy, Bach and Goethe? And therefore can be killed with impunity? Does the ant not have its own polis that is perhaps even more sophisticated and complex than mine? Or is the ant, like me, the naked life that merits respect. My situation is the reification of Cixous’s dream about her house being invaded by all sorts of needy creatures. Shoo, go away. I need to work, write, live, eat, sleep, all undisturbed. I have a small child. Etc. There are no answers to my questions, at least I cannot find them in the quagmire of relativism into which I have got myself. If I have no law or religion, I should perhaps be true to my work and to what I preach. And I preach hospitality.

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A book recommendation for a time of crisis

Reima Välimäki is a Postdoctoral Researcher at TIAS and the Department of Cultural History, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Medieval History

In Emily St. John Mandel’s science fiction novel Station Eleven, a nomadic group of actors and musicians travels through North America devastated by a lethal pandemic, ”Georgia flu”. The troupe performs William Shakespeare’s plays, which have found new appeal in a society where life is uncertain, much like in Shakespeare’s days.

Although our real-life pandemic has proven to be less dramatic than in dystopic fiction, it has marked our society, and we have turned to books written in troubled times. A year ago, library loans of works like Boccaccio’s Decameron and Albert Camus The Plague surged. Recently, Ylioppilaslehti (student magazine for the University of Helsinki) asked four historians to name old books that help to understand our own times (article in Finnish). Recommendations were: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Gilgamesh, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Empire 1875–1914.

My personal favourite, and the favourite of many others in the course of centuries, is The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, a sixth-century Roman senator. Sometimes described as the last of the classical and first of the medieval authors, Boethius, and above all his Consolation, was copied, translated, commented and cited throughout the Middle Ages. Neither did humanist scholars shun Boethius, unlike many medieval best-sellers.

Illustrations from a manuscript of The Consolation of Philosophy (Italy, 1385). MS Hunter 374 (V.1.11), folio 4r. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Consolation of Philosophy, written as a dialogue between a female personification of Philosophy and the narrator, describes the problems of evil, free will, destiny, and virtues. Boethius, writing as a convict waiting for his execution, is preoccupied with the unfairness of the world: why do the virtuous suffer while vile men succeed:

Harsh punishment, deserved by the criminal, afflicts the innocent. Immoral scoundrels now occupy positions of power and unjustly trample the rights of good men. (1. Poem 5, transl. Richard Green, 1962).

Such reflections have certainly appealed to all who have felt that the Feel of Fortune has cast them down. With a certain irony, the Consolation has also been favourite reading of those who have condemned others to prison, torture and death. Boethius is the only author – besides the Bible – that the late fourteenth-century inquisitor Petrus Zwicker, whom I studied in my recent book, cites in his writings. Perhaps reading Boethius was a healthy reminder: Zwicker’s days were the times of plague, schism and war, and Fortune was fickle.

Boethius’s Consolation is definitely reading for troubled times. For those who find the original Latin a bit arduous, there are many translations available. For Finnish readers, I can recommend Juhani Sarsila’s translation (2001).

 

References:

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. Filosofian lohdutus. Suom. Juhani Sarsila. Vastapaino, 2001.

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Richard Green. The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1962.

Onninen, Oskari, ’Tuntuuko, että maailma on monimutkainen paikka ja elämä hankalaa’. Ylioppilaslehti 7.4.2021.

St. John Mandel, Emily, Station Eleven, 2014.

Välimäki, Reima. Heresy in Late Medieval Germany: The Inquisitor Petrus Zwicker and the Waldensians. York Medieval Press, 2019.

 

 

 

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Medicinal Chemistry: an essential field in dire need of dedicated experts

Author Pankaj Kumar Singh

Pankaj Kumar Singh
TCSM Postdoctoral Researcher
Institute of Biomedicine
University of Turku

I was in Italy when the first case of COVID-19 appeared in China, but when things became more serious globally, I moved back to India. Suddenly Italy, the place that was like a second home to me, got wrecked by COVID, and slowly the whole world, including India, was taken over. So, the first thing everyone went looking for was a cure. COVID being a health-related problem, finding a cure meant discovering either a drug, a therapy, or something else able to stop the virus taking so many human lives. Everyone knows discovering a drug is a complicated and time-consuming process. What is not as widely known is that the central piece of any drug discovery puzzle is a medicinal chemist – a trained professional of medicinal chemistry. While discovering a drug requires hefty contributions from biologists (pharmacologists) and experts from other sciences, at the core are medicinal chemists, who provide the drug molecule on which everyone works.

Of the thousands of research papers published on COVID in the last 12-15 months, excepting a few papers reporting on the structures of different proteins of SARS-COV-2, the majority are on designing inhibitors for the reported proteins. The reason for this is, quite correctly, that the first step in a drug discovery process for any disease is the identification of lead molecules, which is usually the responsibility of a medicinal chemist. However, many of the authors were not medicinal chemist and probably did not have the training required to keep basic considerations in mind. As may be expected, most of these papers were published ‘for the sake of it’, or to benefit from a hot and current topic. In most of cases, the information provided is simply redundant and can never be utilized in a practical scenario. Only a handful of the published papers provide any significant outcome.

Continue reading

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Now is the time to stand in solidarity, not project blame on the ‘Other’

Olga Cielemęcka
TIAS Postdoctoral Researcher
Department of Gender Studies

Novelist Arundhati Roy suggests that we might think about the current COVID-19 pandemic, a deadly global health crisis which has been disorganising planetary life and exacerbating social inequalities for over a year now, as a portal. She suggests we experiment with thinking about it as an opportunity to imagine the world otherwise; an opening through which peeks a future different – kinder – than the present we are living in: ‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next’ (1).

According to Roy, this is a moment of reckoning – we can either choose to reorganize the surrounding social reality and the world of relationships that composes it, or we can choose hatred, bigotry, and old prejudice. Many are choosing the latter. The number of racist and xenophobic aggressions related to the COVID-19 outbreak, targeting particularly people of East and Southeast Asian descent, has been on the rise. Coronavirus hate crimes are now devastating communities, breaking the bonds between us, enlivening the zombies of the persistent narratives about the other, the foreigner, the stranger as disease-ridden, toxic, contagious – a carrier of a threat. Since at least the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, we understand that the inner workings of the process of stigmatization consist of discursively establishing an association between the groups presumably or factually affected by a plague with the plague itself. And it is deadly. Now this lethal rhetoric comes back in expressions such as the ‘Wuhan virus’ or ‘Chinese virus’ (2), in microaggressions and attacks on people of Asian descent, as well as other racialized or immigrant members of our communities. I was devasted to hear about the mass shootings on March 16, 2021 in which eight people including six women of Asian descent were murdered in Atlanta, Georgia, United States – a city where I once lived, and which I grew to love and care about. A city in the American South scarred by the Jim Crow laws but one which also has a long, proud history of standing up to racist hate, of Black organizing and resistance, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. If the pandemic were to serve as a portal leading to a different future, we must choose which histories and legacies to build it on and which ones to denounce and turn away from.

In Finland, residents and Finns of Asian descent have been reporting discrimination and racism prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic (3). In mid- March 2021, the University of Turku informed about a cluster of infections that broke out in the student village affecting primarily University of Turku ‘international students’ and ‘exchange students’. Media reporting further highlighted this particular piece of information (4). It implicitly blamed students and their alleged irresponsible behaviour, including partying, for the outbreak rather than explaining the practical impossibility to physically distance in student accommodation where facilities such as kitchens are shared. With tv cameras rolling and increased policing, the residents of the students’ village were made to feel like it is their fault. One student has shared with me that they are ashamed of having tested positive for COVID. It sends chills down my spine to think that anyone would be made to feel that way.

As a migrant and a member of an international academic community, I know the thrill and excitement of being in a new environment but also the loneliness that comes with it. That is why, as members of the University of Turku community we should pay particular attention to making sure that our colleagues and students who may not have family (however defined) and/or extensive social networks in the area are taken care of, safe, and comfortable.

The rhetoric which presents ‘international’, ‘exchange’ or otherwise foreign bodies as vectors of infection perpetuates racist, xenophobic, and anti-migrant sentiments. One recent news article, quoting the Mayor of Turku, advised on avoiding the areas of the student village and Varissuo. Varissuo, being an immigrant neighborhood of Turku with an estimated 32% of residents with non-Finnish background, is also one of the largest residential districts in Turku, which leaves me wondering who is the intended recipient and the imagined readership of such message? COVID-19 related racism and xenophobia affects not only East and Southeast Asian communities but also Black and Brown communities in Finland and non-white Finns. It operates through externalizing responsibility – blame – for the pandemic onto those imagined as ‘others’ (non-white and/or non-Finnish/Nordic). As the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies feelings of fatigue and uncertainty, the worst possible response to this crisis is to mobilise the deadly, racist politics that break us apart through introducing a cut between a certain ‘us’ – the presumably healthy body of the population and the sick/ening ‘them’ (5).

Instead, we need careful words and caring solidarities as well as a clear and loud condemnation of racist and xenophobic language and violence. Now is the time for solidarity and mutual aid.

 

Notes

 

All blog posts represent the personal views of their authors and not that of TCSMT and TIAS.

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Universities and academic freedom during the Covid-19 pandemic: key challenges

Dr Seçkin Sertdemir Özdemir
Collegium Researcher at the Turku Institute
for Advanced Studies and the Department of Philosophy,
Contemporary History and Political Science
and Visiting Fellow in the European Institute at the LSE

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on every aspect of life. As the crisis has evolved, governments worldwide have taken multiple drastic measures to prevent the spread of the virus. However, regulations imposed at the national level have intensified already existing socio-political inequalities and have increased poverty and vulnerability.

One of the institutions most affected by the pandemic is higher education; specifically, academic freedom and institutional autonomy are at great risk across the world.

Universities have shifted to online or blended teaching and learning, and to virtual events. The remote learning environment has allowed students the flexibility of attending asynchronous classes, has reduced costs, and has promoted transnational participation in courses and events. However, the advantages of the current shift to online education are outweighed by the disadvantages. To better understand the universities’ ongoing transformation, it is crucial to examine the main challenges that higher education institutions face today and the global impact of the pandemic on academia. Financially powerful universities in wealthier countries have made a smooth transition to online education; on the other hand, in low- and middle-income countries, many scholars lack resources, tools and additional equipment for digital education. For example, 77 per cent of universities in Africa have had to put their activities on hold during the pandemic. Bert van der Zwaan, author of Higher Education in 2040: A Global Approach (2017), emphasizes that as a result of the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis, some universities might be closed as this is exactly what happened after major outbreaks and epidemics that brought about massive social changes, such as the Black Death.

Recent research by James Walker, Marina Della Giusta and Rita Fontinha at the University of Reading, UK, (December 2020) outlines three main challenges that academics face today because of the pandemic. First, there has been a ‘covidization’ of research in the form of fewer funding opportunities for studies that have not focused on pandemic-related topics. Second, the move to online learning has increased the time spent on teaching and assessment, with an increase in numbers of students despite the pandemic. In contrast, it has reduced the amount of time that academics dedicate to their research. The transition to online learning has also deepened gender inequality as female scholars are now devoting 50 per cent more time to childcare. Results from the preliminary findings of another study related to the pandemic’s impact on academic productivity demonstrate that the productivity of male scholars is steadily increasing at a faster rate than that of their female counterparts. Third, quantitative research has been reinforced at the expense of interdisciplinary studies because it is difficult to carry out ethnographic and archival research during the pandemic.

Another report by the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC) published in April 2020 stresses further risks for non-teaching staff: they have become most vulnerable members of the academic community during the pandemic because of notable job loss. In addition, student mobility to travel abroad for research activities has been at risk as opportunities for international research and short-term study periods have been largely suspended.

Moreover, a recent report, Free to Think, Report of Scholars at Risk (November 2020), offers another major problem faced by higher education institutions: the rise of monitoring and censorship.

Academic freedom and institutional autonomy for higher education institutions has always been at risk, especially under authoritarian regimes. But today, repressive governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to suppress and silence dissident students and scholars. For instance, since January 2021, Turkish academics and students have been protesting against the top-down appointment of Melih Bulu as rector at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; the Governor of Istanbul has used the spread of the virus as a pretext to ban all public demonstrations and meetings to block further protests. In India, students and activists protesting against the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) say that the government deliberately uses the coronavirus crisis to silence them.

However, the rise of control and monitoring over universities is not unique to repressive regimes. The Free to Think report highlights the fact that the online learning environment has also carried risks of monitoring and recording of Zoom lectures, and some scholars have expressed a fear of surveillance during their virtual seminars and events by state or non-state monitors. For instance, Charlie Kirk, the head of the United States right-wing group Turning Point, called upon students to record their university teachers’ Zoom lectures and expose them on social media. The report also refers to a rise in ‘Zoombombing’ in the form of hijacking and offensive attacks on online meetings by the insertion of racist, homophobic and pornographic materials. There are also concerns about the commercial use of university faculty members’ online teaching materials without their consent.

The Free to Think report emphasises how governments have targeted academics’ public statements related to the coronavirus crisis. The most dramatic and best-known example is the tragic case of Chinese ophthalmologist Li Wenliang. He was questioned by police and accused of ‘making false comments’ after he warned about the new deadly SARS virus through his social media account. He caught the virus and died on 6 February 2020 at 34 years old. The Chinese government has also targeted other scholars who have criticised the country’s strategy to tackle and suppress the virus and has put in place further control measures to crack down on the publication of scientific articles related to Covid-19 in China. Another example is from the US: Rebekah Jones, a data scientist at the Department of Health in Florida, was fired because she refused to manipulate the official data about the coronavirus. The report refers to many other examples around the world: students, scholars and activities have been arrested, investigated or suspended from their positions in other countries, such as Egypt, Bangladesh, Uganda and Turkey.

As the Covid-19 crisis deepens, the measures and regulations in place have increased inequality with regard to local and regional conditions, they have put many jobs at risk, and they have profoundly threatened academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Besides, some autocratic governments have used the health crisis as a pretext to increase their control over higher education institutions and knowledge production. There is an urgent need to address on a global level the significant problems that we face today, such as deplorable working conditions, job cuts, rising control and surveillance at universities. When it comes to the pandemic, we are not all in the same boat; however, we can be united when it comes to promoting academic freedom and institutional autonomy and increasing transnational solidarity in the academic community.

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Exploring unconventional ways to make physical systems compute

Profile picture of author Johannes Nokkala

Johannes Nokkala
TCSMT Postdoctoral Researcher
Department of Physics and Astronomy

There are many tasks of practical interest that are not suited for conventional computer algorithms. Suppose for instance that we want to turn speech into text. Although it is easy for us to prepare examples of speech and the corresponding text, we don’t know how to translate what our brains do into, say, if-then statements. To tackle such problems, we need algorithms that can infer the unknown transformation from examples. This is known as supervised machine learning. The basic idea is to use an input-output system that can transform the input in a wide variety of ways depending on how we choose its parameters, and then adjust the parameters to make it mimic the examples. Provided that the true unknown transformation is within its reach, the hope is that with enough examples we can optimize the parameters in such a way that the system continues to perform well even when given new inputs that were not included as examples.

Since I’m a physicist it might be asked why I’m interested in something that sounds more like computer science than physics. My fascination is in fact related to harnessing the dynamics of physical systems for machine learning tasks. Continue reading

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Search for a Vanished River

Marko Lamberg is a Collegium Researcher at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies and the Department of Scandinavian Languages

A couple of weeks ago, Mikel Calle Navarro discussed the concept of the river in his exciting entry in this same blog. I spontaneously commented it, because I had previously pondered the same problematic, albeit in a different context.

As someone who has been born in Jyväskylä, Central Finland, I, too, had learned that the first inhabitant of the region was a certain Heikki Ihannuksenpoika who lived along the Jyväsjoki river at the beginning of the sixteenth century.  However, not until I had started my project with pre-modern location descriptions, I realised that I did not know where Jyväsjoki was situated. Nowadays, almost no one uses that name, and one cannot find it on official maps either. Several rivers flow through the areas the town of Jyväskylä consists of, but they have completely different names. The Digital Name Archive (Nimiarkisto), maintained by the Institute for the Languages of Finland, knows Jyväsjoki, but its map locates it on a dry slope far away from Jyväskylä.

In the local historical literature, I found that the name Jyväsjoki, which probably originally meant ‘Grain River’, had evolved to a settlement name, Jyväskylä (‘Grain Village’). Historians and linguists had already stated that in several works, but no one had analysed this process in detail. Moreover, no one had asked why the present-day town of Jyväskylä is not called Jyväsjoki. And where does or did that river lie?

I found the name Jyväsjoki in court protocols and taxation lists from the sixteenth century when it had been used both as a name of a river and of a settlement. Apparently, the Jyväsjoki river was much longer than the area of the Jyväsjoki settlement. That posed problems for both the local inhabitants and for the early modern government as it was necessary to define exactly where taxpayers dwelled and where their lands were situated. Some inhabitants and administrators chose to use another, more precise name, Leppäkoski (‘Alder Rapid’) regarding the settlement in the area. The government used even a third toponym, Palokka (‘Burnt Land’), referring to slash-and-burn cultivation method practised by the early inhabitants, and decided that the two northernmost farmsteads should be treated as a separate village under that name. That is how the settlement of Jyväsjoki/Leppäkoski got a boundary in the north, but the name Jyväsjoki did not disappear. In fact, it outlasted the competing name Leppäkoski for reasons we can merely guess: perhaps Jyväsjoki was older and more established, perhaps many felt that Leppäkoski referred to a too limited area in the local space. However, Jyväsjoki changed as a settlement name: firstly, contemporaries began speaking of Jyväsjoen kylä (‘Grain River Village’), but long toponyms tend to shorten, so already during the late sixteenth century the official and most widely accepted name of the settlement was Jyväskylä. However, Jyväsjoki continued to exist as a river name.

But although I was able to clarify this process’s outlines, I still did not know where this river was situated. However, I managed to find four references to it in present-day contexts. Firstly, there is a hydrological measurement station along the Tourujoki river in the vicinity of the present-day town centre of Jyväskylä; secondly, the Luonetjoki river which flows through the community of Tikkakoski (‘Woodpecker Rapid’) approximately 17 kilometres northward from the Jyväskylä centre is occasionally spoken of as Jyväsjoki; thirdly, the former school building along the Luonetjoki river is still called Jyväsjoen koulu (‘Jyväsjoki School’); and finally, the bridge over the Köntysjoki river, approximately 23 kilometres northwestward from the Jyväskylä centre, is called Jyväsjoen silta (‘Jyväsjoki Bridge’). All the aforementioned rivers – Tourujoki, Luonetjoki/Jyväsjoki and Köntysjoki – seem to carry same waters (and sediments) from north to southward, to Päijänne, which is the longest lake in Finland. The name of Tourujoki seems to refer to a person name, apparently one of the early settlers, whereas köntys in modern Finnish means a clumsy person, although as a river name it probably just meant ‘slow’. What Luonetjoki meant originally is more difficult to say, but linguists analysing toponyms have suggested that it is somehow connected to water, perhaps to a term signifying flooding waters.

The Tourujoki river which flows mostly in a deep valley belonged once to the southernmost parts of the water route called Jyväsjoki. Picture: Juan Ramirez/Wikimedia Commons.

Luckily, I was able to find a description of the length and course of the Jyväsjoki river in a book published in 1863 and written by Claes Wilhelm Gyldén, the superior director of the Finnish Forestry and Geodesy Board. Gyldén also published a map depicting Finland, and his map contained even a visualisation of the course of Jyväsjoki. Apparently, the river was approximately 35 kilometres long, and it ran through several lakes before it reached Jyväskylä and Päijänne, the longest lake in Finland. The idea that a river runs through several lakes and keeps its name felt quite unfamiliar, so I checked several dictionaries and etymological dictionaries, and I even took a closer look upon the Finnish legislation and its definitions. It appeared that there is no universal definition regarding what actually a river is. For those early hunters, fishers and settlers who came to Central Finland in the Middle Ages, it was convenient to use just one name when they were, in fact, referring to a longer water route leading from Päijänne to the north. It did not matter them that they occasionally passed water bodies which also could be spoken of as lakes. Problems arose only when the permanent settlement which formed along the water route had to be separated from the water route itself as a concept of its own. For the descendants of the settlers as well as for later-day settlers, it was more natural to regard lakes as start and endpoints for individually named rivers. Consequently, the water route once spoken of as Jyväsjoki is nowadays spoken of as a series of several rivers and lakes, the above-mentioned Tourujoki, Luonetjoki and Köntysjoki being some of the names given to shorter sections of the route. Most likely, these alternative names were used already when Gyldén published his book and his map.

After a leakage from a sewer, a headline in the local newspaper Keskisuomalainen, published in Jyväskylä on 3 November 2013, stated that there was still oil in the Jyväsjoki River in Tikkakoski, a community approximately 17 kilometres northward from the Jyväskylä centre. This is a rare example of the use of the old name Jyväsjoki in modern contexts. It has not appeared in local newspapers during the last years, but at least birdwatchers use it occasionally when they report their observations in the Tikkakoski area.

Regarding the blurred memory of Jyväsjoki, I have suggested to the Museum of Central Finland that it could collect still existing oral history regarding the name. Perhaps there are still some chapters of the story of Jyväsjoki which have not been told yet.

I have treated the problem of Jyväsjoki more detailed in my article (in Finnish) in Lähde – historiatieteellinen aikakauskirja . There are not so many works written in English and dealing with the history or geography of the Jyväskylä region, but those who are interested in Finnish rivers or Finnish geography in general can utilise the Map Site of the National Land Survey of Finland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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