Craftsman, physicist, chancellor09/08/17Science & Technology
A physicist and a pioneer in modern atmospheric research, the new Chancellor of the University of Helsinki, Kaarle Hämeri, is quite an experienced lobbyist, too.
|SMEAR is an acronym for ‘Station for Measuring Atmosphere-Ecosystem Relations’|
It probably came as no surprise that physics professor Kaarle Hämeri was selected as the new Chancellor of Helsinki University. The 53-years old scientist has published, together with his colleagues, dozens of groundbreaking results in the field of atmospheric physics and chemistry. Moreover, Hämeri has been promoting his own area of specialisation – aerosol research – all over the world. He is, for example, the principal founder of the European Aerosol Assembly.
What is perhaps less well known is that he has also been working, quite literally with a shovel and hammer in his hands, on a building in the wilderness. This is because Hämeri belongs to a tiny group of scientists who, nearly 30 years ago, decided to establish an entirely novel observation station in Finland. This was the first of the now famous SMEAR-stations.
SMEAR-stations are a type of laboratory entity located in either forest, glacier, or urban areas; they usually consist of a few buildings filled with state-of-the-art instruments and devices used to measure the complex interlinks between the Earth’s surface and the atmosphere.
To be more precise, a small gang of adventurous young scientists, Hämeri among them, came together to found more than one station. It is not difficult to imagine that this endeavour was not only an intellectual exercise, but one which also involved a high degree of craftsmanship – not to mention the muscle to physically construct the stations.
Fortunately, it soon became apparent that the endeavour was worth the effort, and today the SMEAR-stations are highly-recognised, as is the scientific commune which was born around the first SMEAR-project. It is now known as ‘The Finnish Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Sciences’.
Global aerosol researcher
Today, the Finnish Centre of Excellence employs 250 scientists who have together exceeded the publication threshold of Nature and Science dozens of times. Most of the findings are related to the formation processes of aerosol particles.
Currently, the team is extending the network of SMEAR-stations from Scandinavia over Siberia to China. One of the aims of this massive programme is to improve current climate predictions now haunted by many shortcomings. As a by-product, the SMEAR-builders are also developing commercially applicable observational technology.
Hämeri has been working in the Centre of Excellence since its establishment, whilst also fulfilling his duties as physics professor of the University of Helsinki. Additionally, he has initiated several international conferences for aerosol researchers. In his new role as a Chancellor, he will have to defend the varying needs of 11 faculties and some 7,500 people within the 450-year-old academic establishment.
Officially, the Chancellor directs the fund-raising and corporate relations of the university. During his five-year-term as the highest official within Finnish scientific society, Hämeri will also actively work as part of the League of European Research Universities.
To Hämeri, all the aforementioned commitments are tools which can be used to strengthen the independence of basic research: “No-one outside the university should determine the aims or focus of science,” he said.
In his coming season, Hämeri can perhaps take advantage of his experience as a bridge-builder between different fields of the sciences. He is, amongst other things, the principal founder of the European Aerosol Assembly which rounds up not only physicists, engineers, and chemists, but also bioscientists, physicians, and medical doctors.
The versatility of aerosol research follows from the object itself: aerosols are tiny liquid or solid particles suspended in ambient gas. In the atmosphere, they influence the climate and the ecosystem as a whole. The various particles may also have health effects because of their nanometre-class size. No wonder Hämeri was, at the beginning of his career, also employed by the Institute of Occupational Health.
There are other reasons, too, for Hämeri’s positive attitude towards multi-disciplinarity. The Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Sciences, the top research unit co-pioneered by Hämeri, has always employed people from differing educational backgrounds. Hämeri commented: “I hope my working experience gives me insight to fight equally for all the fields of the University. That will certainly be my most important task as a Chancellor.”
Hard science, real business
When it comes to fundraising, Hämeri really knows the effort needed to get financing for science in hard times.
Hämeri and his colleagues were planning and building the first SMEAR-stations in the beginning of the 1990s. At that time, Finland was getting close to the verge of national bankruptcy. One of the deepest recessions in Finnish economic history was amplified by the total collapse of the former Soviet Union. The instability of the once-giant state ruined the trade relations it used to have with its neighbouring countries such as Finland, and the newborn Russia could not address the damages for quite some time.
Because of the financial crisis, there were few, it seemed, who were willing to believe in a project initiated by a few early-career scientists, some of whom were mere students. Indeed, Hämeri and his colleagues were neglected or even mocked by some university officials. The idea of SMEAR was, in its multi-disciplinarity and technical novelty, something unheard of in those days.
”We did not want to fall short of our scientific long-term goals, and pushed forward using all legal avenues open to us”, remembers Hämeri. ”We took potential stakeholders into the forest to show them our scientific equipment; we sat in a sauna with politicians and decision-makers, and so on, for months.
”They were my first steps into nationwide science policy, and this was an interesting and instructive period for me personally, too; I learned a great deal about society as a whole.”
Most politicians would perhaps now recognise that the investment in the first SMEAR-stations was well worth the money – the many scientific breakthroughs made in the Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Sciences are based on measurement data from the SMEAR-stations.
Furthermore, the SMEAR-data has served as a basis to marketable industrial applications: the scientists at the centre have established two successful spin-off firms which are now entering the world market with tangible products. Airmodus Oy develops and fabricates particle counters which are exported to several European countries and China, while Karsa Ltd innovates and manufactures special censors bought, for example, by aviation companies. It is hoped that the centre’s atmospheric scientists will soon demonstrate other commercially useful innovations in the field of clean technology.
Cord reels, transformers and piano keys
Hämeri feels inspired by his new position as Chancellor, he said, but in his heart he remains a laboratory scientist. ”Of course, in my new position I cannot publish as much as I have in the past, but I absolutely want to keep up with current topics in my own area.”
For a physicist, giving up daily tasks with measurement instruments and calculations is more easily said than done. Researchers of all fields devote themselves to scientific working, but most physicists are artificers, too. It is a rule rather than an exception that scientists end up engineering their instruments themselves. There are no shops to buy them, as physicists put it.
”On the first SMEAR-plants, we had to start by fabricating the power supplies and cables for our experiments – there is no electricity in the wilderness,” Hämeri said, remembering with affection the hectic years nearly three decades ago. He has not forgotten how it feels to drag heavy analysators and spectrometers in a pathless terrain – just to establish a new scientific setup in the middle of nowhere.
Perhaps he is a bit wistful. During the last ten years he has had many duties besides his scientific efforts. He has, for example, been working as the Vice Director of the Department of Physics in Helsinki University. This has been something which has also placed constraints on his ability to take part in enthusiastic sessions in the lab with cord reels, transformers, condensators and the like.
As a physicist he would, however, like to do real hands-on science, but because of his time away from the lab wonders whether his competency levels remain “up-to-date to manage with technical details any more. Fortunately, I play piano,” he added, “and so I do have something to do with my hands in my spare time.”
Professor Kaarle Hämeri
University of Helsinki
Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Science
University of Helsinki
This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Science & Technology issue 24, which will be published in September, 2017.