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Sesame science: A unifying force in the divided Middle East

Scientific Research
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Scientist Gihan Kamel checks the data at the infrared beamline lab at the SESAME International Research Centre in Jordan, April 2017.
Dean Calma / IAEA
Scientist Gihan Kamel checks the data at the infrared beamline lab at the SESAME International Research Centre in Jordan, April 2017.
T he Middle East is normally in the headlines for the various conflicts that have flared up across the region. This week showed that, despite all the violence, cooperation is still possible. On Tuesday, Jordanian King Abdullah II inaugurated an advanced research centre north of Amman which will host scientists from Iran, Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority among others. Under normal circumstances, these researchers would be unlikely to meet, let alone work together.
The facility, known as Sesame, short for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, is home to the first particle accelerator in the world solely powered by solar energy. Synchrotrons are a key tool for studying objects on scales ranging from biological cells to atoms by using radiation. Sesame is modelled on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, operated by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN).
Professor Chris Llewellyn Smith, president of Sesame’s council, described opening the centre as “the fulfilment of many hopes and dreams”. Research at the facility will for example target the development of new medicines, the creation of nanomaterials for solar power and the non-invasive study of ancient manuscripts.
The project hit various obstacles over the last two decades, including the fact that several member countries do not have diplomatic relations, as is the case with Israel and Iran as well as Turkey and Cyprus. Two Iranian researchers working on Sesame were killed in what Tehran said were assassinations carried out by Israel. Sanctions on its banking sector also prevented Iran from paying its share at one point.
The chairman of Jordan’s Atomic Energy Commission, Khaled Toukan, hopes Sesame will bring benefits to the whole region. “This centre, it is hoped, will also prevent and reverse the ‘scientific’ brain drain and encourage scientists to contribute to the development of the people of the region,” he said before the launch. Hossein Khosroabadi, a beamline optic scientist working at Sesame, told The World Weekly that “the first synchrotron facility in the Middle East has opened up a lot of opportunities to start technical and scientific collaborations between the members”.
Politics interfered again at the last minute, when Israel shunned the inauguration ceremony over Amman’s reaction to the killing of a Jordanian national in East Jerusalem after he stabbed an Israeli police officer. Nevertheless, observers hope the project will foster cooperation in a conflict-ridden region.
Manuel Langendorf
The World Weekly
18 May 2017 - last edited 6 days ago