The Middle East says ‘Open Sesame’ to international scientists

Sunday 02/07/2017
Fostering excellence. Jordan’s King Abdullah II (L) attending the launch of the major scientific research centre Sesame in Balqa province, last May. (Jordanian Royal Court)

London - A major scientific research centre has opened in Jordan, a few kilometres outside Amman, in an unprecedented collabo­ration between opposing Middle Eastern countries.

King Abdullah II of Jordan attend­ed the May 16 opening ceremony of Sesame — Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applica­tions — which its operators hope will become the site for the region’s most significant scientific research projects.

“Sesame is the most important scientific event that has happened in the Middle East region,” said Mahmoud Tabrizchi, professor of chemistry at the Isfahan University of Technology in Iran.

The physicists behind UNESCO-supported Sesame, whose name symbolises the opening of the insti­tute’s doors to scientists worldwide, hale from countries that rarely en­gage with one another — Iran, Is­rael, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Cyprus, Pakistan and the Palestinian territo­ries.

About $90 million has gone to­wards funding the project, includ­ing pledges of $5 million each from Israel, Iran, Jordan, Turkey and the European Union.

The facility’s crown jewel is its round tube-like synchrotron, a par­ticle accelerator — one of about 60 in the world but the first in the Middle East — that can provide exception­ally detailed views of everything from cancerous tissue to paintings.

“A synchrotron light source is es­sentially a large flash lamp coupled to a number of super microscopes, which allows scientists to study matter on scales ranging from bio­logical cells down to atoms,” Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, British phys­icist and chairman of the Sesame project said via e-mail.

Sesame is partially modelled on Geneva’s European Organisation for Nuclear Research, better known as Cern, home to the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator.

Unlike its Swiss brother, which specialises in smashing protons into each other to detect smaller debris particles — such as the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle — Sesa­me functions by firing electrons in a constant loop near the speed of light.

Andrew Harrison, CEO of Dia­mond Light Source, home to Brit­ain’s synchrotron, in an e-mail con­versation, said the machine has the capability to uncover an object’s most nuanced structural features.

“The fast-moving electrons pro­duce bright beams of light — pre­dominantly in the X-ray region,” he said. Scientists then use this bright “synchrotron light” to ex­amine minute matter such as atoms and molecules, studying anything from viruses and vaccines to fossils and jet engines.

Applications of the technique are wide-ranging and potentially highly significant. At the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Califor­nia in April, scientists uncovered previously unknown atomic details of a hormone receptor associated with regulating blood pressure. Re­searchers said the discovery could lead to new medicines targeting cardiovascular conditions, neuro­pathic pain and tissue growth.

“Giant magneto-resistance, the phenomenon behind portable MP3 players, was studied using synchro­trons. The anti-flu drug Tamiflu was developed using synchrotron based research and the structures of many proteins, viruses and vaccines were successfully mapped using syn­chrotron light,” Harrison said.

Sesame’s mission statement names two main goals: Fostering scientific excellence in the region by preventing brain drain and contrib­uting to a culture of peace through international scientific cooperation.

“Sesame will strengthen science in the Middle East by opening many opportunities for research in fields ranging from biology and medicine, through physics, chemistry and materials science, to archaeology,” Llewellyn Smith said. “It will also facilitate and encourage collabora­tion between scientists in different countries in the region, to their mu­tual advantage.”

Professor Eliezer Rabinovici, theoretical physicist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and one of the founders of Sesame, said he hopes the project proves to be an attractive prospect for the region’s scientists.

“Indeed, one can hope that hav­ing a first-class machine in the re­gion will help attract first rate scien­tists and engineers to remain in the region. There is nothing wrong with them acquiring knowledge abroad but it is good to have something to attract them back,” he said in an e-mail message.

Political stumbling blocks have been rife since the project’s incep­tion. Israel and Iran do not share diplomatic relations, nor do Turkey and Cyprus. In 2010, Iranian mem­ber of Sesame Majid Shahriari was killed, with Iran subsequently ex­ecuting a man who allegedly con­fessed to be trained by Israel’s Mos­sad to carry out the assassination.

“On the political front, it’s pre­cisely because politics is barred from the agenda of Sesame Coun­cil meetings that Sesame works. There have been many political tensions and flash points between Sesame members over the years but the Council sticks to the science. It will be essential to ensure that this remains true as Sesame moves into operation and beyond,” said Llewellyn Smith.

Despite the setbacks, Rabinovici said he was hopeful that science would take precedence in future collaborative efforts between citi­zens of countries currently on op­posite sides politically.

“Some they will like more and some less but they will be able to see each other directly and not with eyes covered with the veil of preju­dice. Science does this to you,” he said.