Monday, September 05, 2016

SESAME: A fantastic science collaboration in the Middle East

by Salman Hameed

If you are looking for a miracle, then look no further than SESAME: the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications. It is an $80 million particle accelerator that is in the final stages of its completion. Physically located in Jordan, its collaborating partners can lead you through a deep history of Middle Eastern conflicts: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian National Authority, and Turkey. As a recent article in the Guardian puts it:
 Iran and Pakistan do not recognise Israel, nor does Turkey recognise Cyprus, and everyone has their myriad diplomatic spats. 
Iran, for example, continues to participate despite two of its scientists who were involved in the project, quantum physicist Masoud Alimohammadi and nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, being assassinated in operations blamed on Israel’s Mossad. 
“We’re cooperating very well together,” said Giorgio Paolucci, the scientific director of Sesame. “That’s the dream.” 
“I don’t know how many places there are where all these governments have representatives who have the opportunity to come and talk to each other,” he added.
In council meetings, representatives of governments meet and discuss technical issues, and come to agreements, the talks untainted by the perpetual enmity outside the conference halls.
Science also broke down the contributions from various countries, and Germany and the EU have played a major role as well (US is conspicuously absent...):
SESAME was founded in 1999 as a partnership of many Middle Eastern countries. Germany donated a big-ticket component: the injector that sends particles into the main storage ring. The initiative has attracted about $30 million in donations from outside the region, including $11 million from the European Union, supplementing the construction costs financed primarily by Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. Iran has pledged $5 million, but sanctions have delayed its contributions.
The operation costs are shared by the members states. While the SESAME accelerator is much smaller than the Large Hadron Collidor that discovered the Higgs Boson, it is still expected to make significant contributions to physics when it opens up for science at the end of this year:
Sesame’s scientists plan to open the synchrotron with three main beamlines, though the project can house up to 20. The first is an X-ray beam which scientists say can be used to analyse soil samples and air particles, identifying contaminants in the environment, as well as, potentially, their sources, in a region suffering from high levels of pollution. 
The second will be an infrared beamline, which will allow researchers to study living cells and tissue. Some preliminary tests at the centre have focused on studying the evolution of breast cancer cells, potentially opening avenues that would help with much earlier detection. 
The last beamline, currently under construction, will be used in protein crystallography, a technique that would allow scientists, among other applications, to study in more depth the structure of viruses and develop drugs that are better able to target them.
This is one of the projects that everyone should be rooting for. Yes - designing accelerators is hard. But having a successful partnership of countries that consider each other mortal enemies is not only a miracle, but it also gives hope - however slim it is, for a peaceful future. Hats off to these physicists, engineers and the diplomats behind the project.

Read the full Guardian article here.

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