“I’m wasn’t the typical scientist, who went to Olympiads as a kid. I was more of an average student.” That is the humble description for his first dozen years at school given by Kristjan Kalam (30), who finished the Tallinn Reaalkool (Tallinn Secondary School of Science) in 2008 and enrolled at the Tallinn University of Technology (now TalTech). The specialisation he chose was industrial and civil engineering, and he really liked the first semesters of his freshman year, when the main focus was on the basics of mathematics and physics. Then, however, the lecturers shifted the focus more specifically to construction materials and machines, and the young man’s vision of himself as a promising civil engineer started to crack from all sides. “I decided that it would be better to serve my mandatory time in the military and think about what I actually want to study!”
Kalam had had some experience with defence structures earlier – already in high school, he served as a guard in the Defence League to make some money. “At the weekends, I had twenty four hour shifts and there were quite a few times when I went to school on Monday morning straight after my watch ended,” recalls Kalam, but then adds, “But it wasn’t like I had to be up for 24 hours straight – you’re never alone on duty.”
As a private, once he was employed full-time by the Defence Forces, Kalam was appointed to the heavy artillery battalion, although he didn’t have to fire off any of the weapons himself. Instead, his task was to advise the heavy artillery team and calculate the locations of the targets. His hands start quickly moving over the table, as they position a mobile phone, a coffee cup and a bottle on the café table to illustrate how he used the information he got from the forward observer to calculate how high and in which direction a barrel should be pointed, “Since a shot can be fired to a distance of up to twenty kilometres, as a rule, the team does not see the target.”
Back amongst civilians, Kalam enrolled at the physics institute of the University of Tartu, which ended up being a decision that did not bring about any hesitation: by 2014 he had his bachelor’s degree and by 2016 his master’s diploma. At the moment, Kalam is working on a doctoral degree, specialising in researching super thin solid films. There may be some confusion due to the Estonian word used to describe the material – the Estonian word ‘kile’ used in the term makes people automatically think about supermarket plastic bags, however, these films are only around a hundred nanometres thick (0,0001 mm – KK). So you can’t see thin solid films with your naked eye, but the multitude of usage opportunities means the materials have a lot of perspective. For example, they can be used as anticorrosive surface protectants, in eye glass manufacturing or in electronics, where chips and other components have to be built up one incredibly thin layer at a time. The electronics industry is something that Kalam now definitely considers to be “his field”, and recently he also went to the Microelectronics Institute of Barcelona to further study material sciences.
There he looked at how the Spanish construct microchips and learned how a clean room works. A perfected version of one will soon be put into operation at the University of Tartu institute of physics. “As the name implies, a clean room is very clean. When you’re in there, you basically have to wear a ‘space suit’ and the air is continuously ventilated,” explains Kalam and adds that there are many clean rooms around the world, clean to various degrees, but the one in Barcelona has 10 000 times less stuff floating around in the air than a regular room. That is important because even though dust particles might be “very small, only a micrometre in diameter,” if one gets between electronics components that have been carefully put together layer by layer, even that micrometre of a particle is “quite a whopper”. Besides studying, Kalam is already a teacher himself, an enthusiastic Wikipedian (his article on the Nash equilibrium won a digital education competition) and a lector at the Estonian Aviation Academy, where he teaches future airplane maintenance engineers “basic school level mathematics and secondary school level physics,” so that all graduates would have a fresh understanding of how to calculate “the surface area of a wing or the capacity of a plane’s fuel tank”. In 2016-2018, Kalam also taught physics at the Tartu Tamme High School, but now he only consults students before national mathematics exams and provides private consultations. This is the only economic activity that his small company engages in, “This year I was asking 90 euros for a 21-hour course.”
Despite his Tallinn roots, Kalam’s home town these days is indisputably Tartu. That is how it should also remain in “the long-term perspective,” since “in the short term I will, of course, have to travel for work or study, but afterwards I want to come back to Tartu.” Falling in love with ‘Athens on the River Emajõgi’ was no accident, as Kristjan Kalam found out in his third year of bachelor’s studies, when he met his fiancée in Tartu. By now that fiancée has become his wife, who is currently on parental leave, but is a doctoral student in mathematics and also works at the University of Tartu. “We are raising our children and writing our doctoral theses together.” In 2017, the couple won the annual award for the promotion of museum education for an educational video they made for the Estonian Museum of Sports and Olympics on the relationship between sciences and sports. “For example, if you’re playing football, you have to know geometry well – how you pass the ball so that it would reach precisely the player that you want to reach, and if things end up in penalties, the statistics are again very important. The goalie definitely studies whether a specific penalty hitter tends to lean left or right and which foot the player prefers.”
It would be more complicated to connect physics to religion, but at the same time Kalam does not believe that the two necessarily rule each other out.
“I certainly don’t believe that a mathematician or a physicist has to be an atheist; I see no contradictions that might keep a mathematician or a physicist from being religious. To paraphrase the famous physicist Werner Heisenberg, when you take a sip from the cup of physics, you become an atheist, but at the bottom of the cup you will see God.”
“How far along are you with your cup?”
He laughs, “Probably about half way. I don’t consider myself an atheist, but at the same time I don’t adhere to any religious confessions. I suppose ‘spiritual’ would be the right word to describe me.”
CITY OR COUNTRY: “Country, even though I live in the city. My dream is to live in the country, in my own house, where the kids could run around the garden freely.”
CAT OR DOG: “Dog. I have a little cavalier spaniel.”
WHITE OR RED: “White.”
TEA OR COFFEE: “Coffee. Just with milk.”
LEFT OR RIGHT: “Right.”