Middle East scientists beaming over new research
ALLAN, Jordan // A research centre bringing together some of the finest scientists in the Middle East is launching operations this year to boost discovery with the help of a powerful microscope.
It has been a tough journey since groundbreaking in 2003, marked by political rows and the 2010 assassination of an Iranian scientist linked to the project.
Perhaps even more threatening were chronic funding shortages, said Khaled Toukan, the Jordanian director of the project, known by its acronym, SESAME.
The undertaking was at risk of collapse several times, but has reached a point of no return, he said.
“It is working, and I am surprised,” he said of the rare collaboration of eight members that includes Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority.
The centrepiece of SESAME is a synchrotron light source — essentially a powerful microscope — that fills a large hangar in the countryside of western Jordan.
The contraption zaps electrons through a circular tube at near the speed of light, generating intense light beams. Researchers can train these “beam lines” on their subject of study, from cells to materials, in a wide range of disciplines, from medicine and biology to archaeology and environmental science.
The first two lines will start operating by November, and dozens of researchers have applied for “beam time,” said Mr Toukan. In all, two dozen lines are to be set up eventually, in hopes of drawing hundreds of researchers from the region.
During a visit to SESAME last week, physicists and engineers, among them an Iranian, an Egyptian and a Palestinian, were working quietly on the beam lines.
Hossein Khosroabadi, 40, a physicist from Tehran, said the secret for getting along is to focus on the science. “If you start talking politics, it makes a problem for us,” said the beamline specialist.
Egyptian physicist Gihan Kamel, 41, said she hopes SESAME will open doors for women in science. The research centre will enable female graduate students and doctoral candidates to conduct their research in the region.
Plans for an advanced regional research centre go back to the late 1990s.
The idea to forge meaningful scientific contacts in the Middle East came from scientists involved with CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, one of the first European organisations established after the devastation of the Second World War.
CERN dwarfs SESAME in many ways, including with a particle accelerator that at 27 kilometres is more than 200 times longer than the one in Jordan.
But the idea of science as a tool for breaking down barriers is central to both.
Among the early CERN-affiliated scientists who spotted the potential was Eliezer Rabinovici, a physicist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
After the Oslo Accords, “we thought maybe that’s the moment when one can try to establish a bridge of understanding between Israelis and our neighbours, the Arabs,” Professor Rabinovici said.
Palestinian accelerator physicist Maher Attal, who has been with the project from the start, recalled the elation of scientists over each milestone, including in April when they ramped up the electrons to full speed.
“We were just shouting and shaking hands with each other,” said Mr Attal, 43, from Qalqiliya in the West Bank.
Scraping together some US$100 million (Dh367m) for the first phase of the project was a struggle. Donors included the European Union and member states. Jordan also provided the land and the building. Still missing are a dormitory, offices and a cafeteria. “We only built the core of the facility,” said Mr Toukan.
Disagreements are aired at biannual meetings of SESAME’s governing council which includes representatives of member countries and observer states such as France, Germany, Britain, Japan, Russia and the United States. Unesco, the UN agency promoting culture and science, is a sponsor.
Mr Toukan said things got heated a few times when regional conflicts intruded.
He said Israel threatened to walk out when the Palestinians demanded to be listed in the charter as “state of Palestine,” in line with a 2012 UN General Assembly upgrade of their status at the world body.
Arab member stations persuaded the Palestinians to hold off in order not to endanger the project, said Mr Toukan.
Iranian physicist Massoud Ali Mohammed was assassinated by a motorcycle bomb outside his Tehran home in January 2010, several days after attending a SESAME council meeting in Jordan, said Mr Toukan. Despite the fallout, including Iran blaming the US and Israel, the next council meeting was held six months later.
More bumps are likely, but Mr Toukan said he believes SESAME can no longer be derailed.
“We might lose one or two countries on the road, and we might get other countries,” he said. “But I think now SESAME is solid on the ground.”
Updated: June 12, 2017 04:00 AM