Featured

A Beacon of Hope for the Middle East, With Love From Electrons

The SESAME collaboration has brought together scientists from Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey – an unlikely alliance.

The building housing the SESAME experiment is visible in the foreground. Credit: SESAME

The building housing the SESAME experiment is visible in the foreground. Credit: SESAME

On the threshold of 2018, The Wire revisits some uplifting moments from 2017. Here’s The Year in Hope.


In November this year, a physics experiment called SESAME produced its ‘first light’ –  which is scientific parlance for ‘became available for experiments’ for a machine that produces radiation. SESAME is a synchrotron, and synchrotrons are not a big deal. They have been used by physicists to produce certain kinds of radiation since the late 1940s. What makes SESAME really special is in its name: ‘Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East’. It’s the largest experiment (in terms of investment and participation) to have brought together scientists from Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. These are states that hardly – if at all – see eye to eye, making this collaboration particularly remarkable.

As a synchrotron, SESAME consists of a ring of circumference 133 metres. Millions of electrons circulate inside the ring over hours, accelerated by rapidly oscillating electric and magnetic fields, to very nearly the speed of light. As they move through the curves, the electrons give away some energy called synchrotron radiation, a kind of light that is collected by scientists and used to explore the shape and behaviour of very small things. This ranges from bumps on the surface of ancient parchments to the shape of effective drug molecules.

SESAME is located in Jordan, about 40 km northwest of its capital Amman. The idea for the collaboration emerged after the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, and received approval from several heads of state in the region two years later. Jordan’s King Abdullah proposed a site in 2000. According to a press release, the experiment’s first light – an intense X-ray beam – would be used “to investigate heavy metal contamination” in soil. Because X-rays have a lower wavelength than visible light, they can probe much smaller distances, such as at the level of individual molecules. By controlling how the synchrotron works, scientists can get radiation of different wavelengths for different experiments.

Because of its unique composition, SESAME has many other kinds of things left to do, too. Its administrators have been trying to get Lebanon and Syria to join the collaboration. Both nations have remained reluctant because of Israel’s presence. The experiment also needs more money because, while Iranian and Turkish scientists might be able to work together, their respective banks can’t, so moving funds has been a problem. SESAME also functions under the auspices of UNESCO – which means funds from the US have been limited because of the cultural body’s recognition of Palestine as a nation.

Gihan Kamel, an Egyptian scientist who has been with SESAME since August this year, told Times Higher Education, “Basically, we are scientists, we are not politicians. We don’t care about politics inside SESAME at all.” Such an outlook is inspiring because it ensures scientific knowledge is not forfeited even in a region as constantly overwrought as the Middle East. As Bruce Ravel, an American physicist, told Popular Science, “Having a place like SESAME is a way to develop a scientific community in a region that doesn’t have a large one.”

At the same time, one hopes the scientists remain mindful of politics at some level lest they begin to believe that politics doesn’t matter, only the science does. Because, if anything, SESAME’s real promise lies with demonstrating that the option to sit down and talk things out à la the Oslo Accords is still desirable. Its light can be a literal beacon of hope.

Social image: Gihan Kamel analyses particles at the infrared beamline lab at SESAME, in Jordan. Credit: iaea_imagebank/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.