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Open SESAME: Jordan’s particle accelerator breaks down atoms – and barriers

Why We Wrote This

The Middle East is often portrayed as a region locked in perpetual turmoil. But in the foothills of western Jordan, scientists from all over the region are setting aside national politics to work together.

Taylor Luck
Egyptian infrared beamline scientist Gihan Kamel holds up a piece of an ancient Nabatean statue, one of the hundreds of items being scanned and analyzed at the light synchrotron at SESAME in western Jordan on Oct. 23.

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In what is being hailed as a breakthrough in science diplomacy, a particle accelerator in Jordan is bringing together scientists from across the fragmented Middle East to work together, to better understand their shared past, and to find solutions for their common future. At the UNESCO-supported SESAME, or Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, researchers from Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Palestinian territories, Pakistan, and Turkey have been finding common ground. Many of these nations have poor relations, are in a state of frequent conflict, or in some cases have no diplomatic relations at all. But rather than viewing each other as political foes or even academic competitors these researchers have come to accept each other as colleagues and collaborators. The various research projects shed light on member nations’ shared heritage and common challenges. In the words of Egyptian infrared beamline scientist Gihan Kamel: “It is as if we are opening a door to infinite possibilities, while looking at our common history and future.”

Three scientists in white lab coats huddle as a faint red beam of energy the diameter of a small coin streams into the square trailer.

In a graceful, almost choreographed movement, they check computer readouts, adjust the beam, and jot down notes as data splashes out in charts of red, green, and blue on the monitors.

They barely speak a word, for good reason – they speak different languages. But here they have no need for their mother tongues.

“We come from many countries,” Messaoud Harfouche, an Algerian beamline scientist, says as he checks a monitor. “But we all speak the language of science.”

In what is being hailed as a breakthrough in science diplomacy, a particle accelerator in Jordan is breaking down atoms and barriers, offering scientists from across the fragmented Middle East the chance to work together, to better understand their shared past, and to find solutions for their common future.

At the UNESCO-supported SESAME, or Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, researchers and scientists have spent months learning from each other since the particle accelerator became fully operational this spring.

Nestled among pines and olive trees in the foothills of western Jordan, a nondescript warehouse houses a concrete-enclosed loop nearly a mile long. Inside the ring, electrons circle at nearly a million times per second, approaching the speed of light, being fed off into separate beamlines housed in trailers extending off from the main loop like off-ramps.

This synchrotron is similar in principle to more famous particle accelerators such as CERN near Geneva or Fermilab in Illinois. Yet while those accelerators are devoted to probing the fundamentals of physics, the synchrotron at SESAME is for practical research and analysis of items ranging from 4,000-year-old human remains to modern soil samples.

On the premises at any given time are researchers and experts from Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Palestinian territories, Pakistan, and Turkey.

Many of these nations have poor relations, are in frequent conflict, or in some cases, have no diplomatic relations at all. But rather than viewing each other as political foes or even academic competitors these researchers have come to accept each other as colleagues and collaborators.

Common ground

Politically speaking, the barriers are great: Israel and Iran have no diplomatic ties; Turkey is locked in a dispute with Cyprus; and Israel and Palestinian groups exist in a seemingly endless cycle of conflict.

Jordan, the host country which donated the land and facility, is one of the only states that has friendly relations and full ties with all.

Organizers say this is by design; SESAME’s main aim is to encourage scientists from across borders and faiths to meet and cooperate, even when their leaders refuse to do the same.

“SESAME is built on the philosophy of science diplomacy; to have experts from different countries and backgrounds to meet under the roof of science to work together, experiment together, and publish research together,” says Dr. Giorgio Paolucci, scientific director at SESAME.

Currently, the synchrotron at SESAME is running two separate beamlines used for infrared X-ray and X-ray fluorescence analyzing subjects such as molecules and ancient statues. The center is set to have a total of six beamlines, including tomography and material sciences, online by 2022.

The various research projects shed light on member nations’ shared heritage and common challenges.

A Cypriot team of biological anthropologists are working with Arab researchers to scan bones and teeth from 4,000-year-old remains from Cyprus, Turkey, and Iran to examine the common diet, environment, migration, and social structures of ancient communities in the eastern Mediterranean region.

At the same time, a Palestinian team is examining soil samples to detect pollution threatening Palestinian and Israeli communities alike, while a Pakistani team is exploring common risk factors for a potentially fatal pregnancy disorder known as eclampsia.

Iranian researchers are scanning 1,000 year-old pages of poetry and Koranic verses to determine the ancient paints and colors used by renowned calligraphers in the region and ways to best preserve the parchments’ shiny gold and vibrant blue, green, and red hues – a breakthrough which would benefit archivists and museums across the region.

Egyptian infrared beamline scientist Gihan Kamel sorts through the various samples she is rotating in and out on a half-hour and hourly basis: a small bag of ancient teeth from Turkey, slides of placenta, segments of a Nabatean sandstone statue from Petra, and 800-year old pages of the Koran.

“Here we are able to analyze and X-ray samples from across so many fields; biology, chemistry, archeology, cultural heritage,” Dr. Kamel says. “It is as if we are opening a door to infinite possibilities, while looking at our common history and future.”

Fostering collaboration

But SESAME is doing more than just allowing a safe space for scientific minds to meet.

By approving multi-disciplinary projects requiring a wide range of experts, it is encouraging scientists and experts to rely on each other to share their expertise. An archaeologist will be in the need of a physicist and a geologist, a biologist would need a chemist and a beamline expert.

“Often you don’t find all the expertise in one country and you are forced to turn to people from different countries to cooperate,” says Walid Zidan, SESAME administrative director. “And we happen to have them all right here at this center.”

With the vast majority of light synchrotrons located in the West and none in Africa or West Asia, SESAME provides a valuable tool for institutions and researchers who would otherwise be unable to afford the money, time, or red tape to secure visas to carry out their work in Europe or the United States.

It is democratizing science, giving access to some of the latest research tools to a region that once carried the light of science and reason while much of the Western world was in darkness, but now faces barriers – logistical and political – to fulfill its potential.

“While each of us have advanced centers at home, none of us have facilities like this,” says Neama Imam, an Egyptian physicist who also works with Egypt’s Atomic Energy Authority.

“Here what takes us a half-hour to complete would take us 24 hours in our home countries – if we could do it all.”

SESAME is the only option for users such as Iranian researchers, local universities, Arab museums, and environmentalists, who either have limited diplomatic access to visas or inadequate funding to go abroad.

Less than a year in operation, the center’s work has attracted many; SESAME has received 60 proposals for projects from researchers across the world at the synchrotron for 2019.

But the center is not without its challenges; due to intense electricity needs and maintenance, SESAME costs more than $6 million to operate each year. Although the member nations pay a segment based on their GDP, many are behind on their payments.

Then there is the question of regional politics, which had previously delayed and threatened to derail the project since its inception in 2003.

But no matter the political temperature or rhetoric, organizers say SESAME will remain a space for scientists to meet and work together, even when politicians try to divide them.

 “When we talk about X-rays and atoms, we are speaking the language that unites us,” Dr. Harfouche says.

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