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As the biggest international science journalism conference nears, here are some science-y factoids about host nation Finland from a Helsinki native.
Monty Python’s musical ribbing of Finland (“your mountains so lofty, your treetops so tall…you’re so sadly neglected, and often ignored”) held true for a long time. The isolated backwater full of rude people whose language you can’t understand has turned into a tech, education, and science powerhouse full of reserved and gruff people whose language you still can’t understand. As the World Conference of Science Journalists prepares to descend on Helsinki during the last week of June, here are some uniquely Finnish health, tech, and nature topics to get writers and visitors thinking.
Jessica recently posted about granite countertops, and coincidentally most of Finland’s bedrock is granite. Those who venture outside the capital may get to glimpse massive glacial erratics, rocks that molded the landscape as the Ice Age retreated. The resulting rock formations and large pits (giant’s kettles) were thought to be caused by goblins.
Forests are Finland’s “green gold,” with paper, pulp, and forestry accounting for a significant portion of the economy. A lot of the heavy machinery for those industries is also designed and made in Finland. Hydroelectricity still powers some of the mills in Eastern Finland, where the attendant smell is omnipresent and overpowering. An interesting emerging green energy source are the abundant peat bogs, where adventurous folks like to play a curious kind of soccer (football) and bones of ancient murder and human sacrifice victims can occasionally be found.
The abundant forests are also full of birch trees, especially in the south of the country. Birch tree sugar, otherwise known as xylitol, has been a major component of Finns’ dental health for decades (mostly via chewing gum), and now with the craze for natural low-calorie sweeteners it has caught on in the wider world, too. The “sugar studies” carried out at the University of Turku in the early 1970s showed that xylitol actually has dental benefits. (An ad for a popular xylitol gum brand is below.)
With a relatively small and homogenous population, it’s not too hard to implement public health measures and see results in a few decades. When Finns’ cholesterol was found to extremely high in the 1970s, nutrition education and dietary changes helped to bring it down (though it’s creeping back up now). A radical decrease in infant mortality in the 20th century was likewise brought about through research, social policies, and increased awareness. Both healthcare delivery and medical research (Helsinki professor Kari Alitalo was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences this year, for example) in Finland are highly regarded and studied as model systems for other countries. (Other kinds of research originating in Finland, meanwhile, are a bit more questionable.)
Nokia may not be on top anymore, but in 1999 its 8110 banana phone was the hottest tech (just ask Neo in The Matrix). The very first 2G cell phone call was made by the Finnish prime minister in 1991. It’s well known that the creator of the Linux kernel Linus Torvalds is Finnish, as is Rovio, the game developer behind Angry Birds. Helsinki is also trying to pitch itself as the hub for neurogaming, or mind-controlled video gaming. Players using headgear that reads brain waves can fly toy helicopters, for example, just by concentrating really hard. Coincidentally, Finland is also known for some very relevant brain research, particularly in magnetoencephalography or MEG. (Brain wave tech probably won’t help you in the mobile phone throwing world championships though; yes, that is another bizarre Finnish sport.)
The panelists for the “killer science journalism” session have of course been tweeting and blogging up a storm, and Bora Zivkovic has linked to a Finnish etiquette guide, so anyone attending WCSJ should now be more than ready to take on the land of the midnight sun. (Last tip: if you want some pizza in Helsinki, try Dennis; for some more authentically Finnish cuisine, Kuu.)