Definition of the subject

Writing about the history of science in Estonia is complicated by difficulties in defining the subject. One may ask: what is science (remembering the discussions which arise from time to time between ‘national scientists’ and ‘scientists proper’), where is the borderline between applied sciences and high technology industry or medical care and if, in speaking about science, popular science should be discussed? Moreover, examples can be found in history for discussing whether the science practised in Estonia is synonymous with Estonian science.

Another problem in providing a comprehensive overview is the sporadic nature of the previous research – much of the domestic history of science consists of stories of individuals or institutions which are insufficient for describing the development of scientific ideas and their relation to the context of the rest of the world. To use an image, one could say that the domestic research of science history, for the most part centred on anniversaries, has demonstrated the application of methods of historical research in the study of the relevant archive materials, but the writings of the departed scientists – the material which is stored in libraries rather than archives – tends to be less used.

Nevertheless, in providing an overview, the institutional and chronological approach cannot be ignored (in what follows much attention is paid to Tartu University), for although the history of scientific ideas and institutions often extends through the centuries and social orders, the temporal scale helps underline the genesis and development of the national component, bringing forth the shift which began to take place at the turn of the century, in the course of which Estonians came to be practitioners of science instead of being merely objects of scientific research. And although the scientific work in Estonian remained for decades the popularization or, at best, imitation of world science, the last hundred years have witnessed the birth and development of the Estonian language of science, the emergence of the identity of science and the first advancements in Estonian science.

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