Academic and politician Endel Lippmaa dies (1)

7/31/2015 12:55 PM
Category: Society

A prominent former government minister and academic Endel Lippmaa died last night. He was 84.

To an average Estonian, Lippmaa was one of the most visible Estonian scientists in the last 30 years, almost an epitomizing figure in science.

Born in Tartu on September 15, 1930, Lippmaa obtained a PhD from the Tallinn University of Technology in 1956 and a DSc from the Institute of Chemical Physics in Moscow in 1969. He held a number of positions at the Estonian Academy of Sciences since becoming a member in 1972.

It was during the Estonia's quest for independence when his name entered public discourse. In spring 1987, a year before the "Singing Revolution", Lippmaa became one of the main opponents of the Soviet plan to build new phosphate mines in Estonia, which would have caused environmental harm and brought in tens of thousands of Soviet immigrants.

After joining the Popular Front and being one of the leading force in the independence drive during the "Singing Revolution," he served as a minister in three Estonian governments, under Edgar Savisaar and Tiit Vähi, as well as an MP from 1996-1999. In TV-debates, he always stood out by bringing a portfolio full of documents with him, taking smoothly the relevant one out to prove his point or facts in an argument against opponents.

Although loyal to the political force he represented (Estonian Coalition Party, a center-right party founded in 1991 by Tiit Vähi, but disbanded in 2001), he was always also a man of his own and never afraid to speak his mind. Interviews with witty and at times humorous Lippmaa usually became hit stories.

Estonian public knew him mainly via politics, but the list of Lippmaa's academic achievements and titles is long. He was a professor of chemical physics in Tartu, member and later board member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, head of the Physics Department and Institute of Cybernetics in Tallinn, member of the Academic Council of the President, Foreign Member of the Finnish Academy of Sciences and Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, as well as Member of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Lippmaa contributed to a number of breakthroughs in science during his long career. His interest in physics began during the World War II when he started reading books and papers on the subject. “In 1953, my first publication was in chemical physics. One of my most important contributions in this field was related to the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). At that time all the technologies I was using were very similar to the ones used at The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN),“ Lippmaa recalled to CERN Bulletin in 2010.

After Estonia regained independence in 1991, Lippmaa managed to finally form a real contact with CERN in 1992, as head of the Department of Physics of the Institute of Cybernetics in Estonia. At that time, his research programs were closely related to chemical physics, radio spectroscopy, electronics, information science, quantum computing, biophysics and environmental science, as well as nuclear and particle physics.

Throughout his long career, Lippmaa observed a close relationship between science and politics: they both involve lots of competition. "Like the Olympic Games, what is important is not the taking part but the winning. Only the best results, which the others have not foreseen, are worth striving for,” he said.

In 1999, Lippmaa was named one of the 100 great Estonians of the 20th century.

J.M. Laats, S. Tambur

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