Researchers from across the Middle East have joined forces on a futuristic project that will enable them to study everything from proteins to archaeological finds.
The notion of scientists from Israel meeting in Jordan with counterparts from countries such as Iran, Bahrain, Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey seems like something out of a fantasy novel.
Yet such meetings have been occurring – most recently in November last year – for about 15 years, as a conglomerate of Middle East countries hammers out the details of a major scientific project to benefit scientists from across the region. The project, too, seems like something out of a sci-fi thriller.
SESAME, an acronym for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, will provide regional scientists with a multifaceted look at everything from proteins to archeological finds.
Eliezer Rabinovici, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem and one of the founders of SESAME, explains to ISRAEL21c that a synchrotron “is like an enormous x-ray machine” that rapidly turns electrons until they radiate light that allows scientists to study the structure of substances, even tiny ones such as proteins, in more depth than ever before. Synchrotron studies are useful in chemistry, molecular biology, environmental science, pharmaceuticals and nanotechnology. Archeologists and art historians may also find uses for a synchrotron.
First synchrotron in MidEast
Though SESAME is sometimes erroneously referred to as a particle accelerator, it’s not the same, Rabinovici explains. Both operate on principles of high-energy physics. However, particle accelerators smash atoms to provide a unique look into the composition of the material world at its most basic level. In a synchrotron, “there are no collisions. In order to study proteins, you don’t have to smash them to pieces,” he says.
According to lightsources.org, there are approximately 70 synchrotrons in the world, but none in the Middle East. “Availability is a problem,” says Prof. Moshe Paz-Pasternak of Tel Aviv University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, the other Israeli representative to the SESAME council. Aside from the time and expense of travel, “You have to write a proposal in order to book a time, and you get only one or two weeks. Here, at least in the beginning, you might get more time.”
Supported by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), SESAME is under construction in Allaan, Jordan – just 30 km from Amman. Many components are already in place inside the $10 million building begun in 2003. “You need a special, stable building to house this because the Jordan Valley is very seismic,” says Rabinovici.
Politics slow down project
The long process is still several years from completion, according to Rabinovici, who co-founded the initiative in the “new atmosphere” in the Middle East following the 1993 Oslo accords.
“I think it’s the duty of scientists to try to serve as a bridge to peace,” he says.
Nevertheless, the absence of peace has slowed progress over the years, and funding continues to hold it up. At the November council meeting, Israel committed to investing $5 million in SESAME on condition that the other countries invest a matching amount. Jordan, Turkey and Egypt have since pledged $5 million each. Cyprus and the Palestinian Authority also are involved.
“The next step is having a meeting to reach an agreement on matching funds,” Rabinovici says.
Scientists rise above politics
The Hebrew University physics professor also serves as Israel’s liaison to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), whose projects include the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator outside Geneva. Israelis are among some 800 physicists and physics students from 35 countries participating in experiments there. Like the United States, Israel has CERN observer status and received approval in December to begin the process of becoming an official member state.
The director of CERN has also been involved in planning for SESAME. Additional support is expected from the United States and European countries eager to encourage this unusual collaboration among nations that rarely sit at the same table.
Indeed, SESAME is a rare example of how committed colleagues can transcend politics. “I don’t go [to these meetings] to meet Iranians,” but rather fellow academics, Rabinovici says. All the talks are conducted in English.
“It’s an international group,” adds Paz-Pasternak. “Most of the scientists we meet from these countries fly all over the world meeting other scientists, and many got their Ph.D.s abroad.”
Paz-Pasternak says he does not expect any problem for Israeli graduate students and scientists in terms of travel to SESAME – there are several direct routes Israelis can take to Jordan – but where they might stay is a more thorny issue. He says there are plans for the complex to include a guesthouse. “This would be ideal, because it would also allow all the users to meet each other easily,” he says.
Rabinivoci stressed his confidence that these details should work out in the end. “We are scientists working together for a common goal,” he says.