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Open SESAME: A Powerful Light Attracts Middle Eastern Scientists

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From the Winter 2015/16 Issue “Latin America On Life Support?

By Richard Blaustein

In his speech at the 1979 Nobel Prize banquet, Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam called on the nations of the world to foster science in developing countries. No region, he said, should have a monopoly on the discipline: “The creation of physics is the shared heritage of all mankind. East and West, North and South have equally participated in it.”

Salam—who shared his Nobel with U.S. physicists Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Lee Glashow for identifying the electroweak force, the brief union of two of nature’s four fundamental interactions—concluded his address with a challenge: “Let us strive to provide equal opportunities to all so that they can engage in the creation of physics and science for the benefit of all mankind.”

Salam lived this ideal, devoting himself to the promotion of science in the Middle East. He publicly called on the region’s countries to pool their resources and construct a synchrotron light source, a scientific installation that would allow researchers in the Middle East to study nature to the minutest detail and, Salam hoped, create a cross-border community of scientists.

Now, 20 years after his death in 1996, Salam’s goal is becoming reality. After a half decade of construction and training, the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, or SESAME, is expected to be fully operational by summer 2016. The project is envisioned not just to further science in the Middle East but to build goodwill in a region marked by hostilities and misunderstandings.

Synchrotrons use light radiating from accelerated beams, often at particle accelerator labs such as the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Stanford, California. The machines generate light beams that are much stronger and more focused than ordinary X-rays with a range of wavelengths and energy frequencies. Acting like a giant microscope, a synchrotron facility can be used by a large number of scientists across various fields to examine surfaces down to the atomic level. At SLAC, synchrotron technology has helped develop HIV drugs and improve solar cell efficiency. And, without Stanford’s synchrotron, researchers in 2005 never could have deciphered 10th century transcriptions of some of Archimedes’ lost works, which had been scrubbed out and overwritten by monks in the 13th century.

Right now, there are about 50 synchrotrons in world, but SESAME, being built in Allan, Jordan, will be the first in the Middle East. The facility is run by a collection of governments not normally known to work together: Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, Turkey, Bahrain, Cyprus, and Egypt. Other states and organizations, such as the United States and the European Union, have special SESAME observer status and will offer advice and support. While SESAME’s investigations will have global applications, scientists will focus on questions particular to the Middle East, including local archaeological and environmental research.

But finding sustainable funding has been difficult for SESAME, with only promises and partial payments from some member states. SESAME has turned out to be more expensive than first envisioned, and U.S. funding to match the EU’s $11 million contribution would provide crucial breathing space for the project.

While improving diplomatic relations through science is a key goal, researchers at SESAME emphasize that the infrastructure and science has to be top-notch in order to keep talent in the Middle East. “Science for peace … only works if the science is good,” explains British physicist and current president of the SESAME Council Chris Llewellyn Smith. “It is extremely important [for SESAME] that there is an overriding interest in the scientists doing the science.”

Turkish biophysicist Zehra Sayers, who heads the Scientific Advisory Committee for SESAME, agrees: “Our aspiration is that we will have up-to-date equipment that will attract scientists … to bring their projects to work on this equipment. We expect that we will be able to reverse the brain drain to some extent at least, because we will be able to provide scientists with high-quality facilities.”


Hebrew University string theorist Eliezer Rabinovici was an early SESAME booster. He instigated Israel’s commitment to contribute millions of dollars, which in turn moved additional countries and organizations to donate. Around the time the Oslo peace agreements were signed in 1993, Rabinovici reviewed possibilities for Arab-Israeli collaboration in the sciences and found support with University of Torino physicist Sergio Fubini. Together, Fubini and Rabinovici started the Middle East Science Collaboration, or MESC, which began holding meetings in the 1990s. Shortly before his death in 1996, Salam would endorse the MESC initiative.

Rabinovici and collaborators found willing partners, especially in meetings with the Egyptian Ministry of Education. A few weeks after the assassination of  Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Rabinovici led the Israeli delegation at a science collaboration summit in Sinai that included Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

Despite hostilities in Lebanon in 1996, Rabinovici and others maintained contact, and, in 1997 and 1998, Fubini and his Swedish colleague Tord Ekelöf organized what would be a pair of critical MESC meetings, first in Torino, Italy and a year later in Uppsala, Sweden. Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli scientists were among the participants.

However, it was the attendance of a pair of scientists from outside the Middle East that would open the doors for SESAME. At the time, SLAC physicist and synchrotron expert Herman Winick and German physicist Gustav-Adolf Voss were members of a review committee for the Berlin synchrotron center called BESSY, and were exploring ideas on how to re-use  its old synchrotron equipment.

At Uppsala, Voss formally presented the idea of transferring some of BESSY’s technology to a coalition of scientists in the Middle East. UNESCO and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) joined MESC in offering support. CERN’s director general, Herwig Schopper, attended the Uppsala meeting and became the first president of the SESAME Council, preceding Llewellyn Smith, also a former CERN director general. In addition to BESSY and CERN, U.S. facilities and other international labs have also donated equipment and guidance to SESAME. With this key early support, the SESAME project was underway, albeit without a sustainable funding plan.

Since its initial launch, plans were altered, adding to the cost of the project. Most important was the decision to build a new storage ring and not attempt to recycle the one from BESSY. While the most expensive part of the project had to be newly constructed, Winick and Rabinovici both credit the BESSY equipment transfer idea as being what pushed the project forward. The BESSY microtron and booster synchrotron, two of the three parts needed to generate a beamline, were kept and refurbished. A new storage ring, the third and final piece, is currently being assembled at SESAME.


Winick explains the basic principle behind how the technology works: “Any time you accelerate a charged particle, it radiates. The electric and magnetic field generated by a charged particle propagates out.” In a circular cavity, such as SESAME’s storage ring, electrons are moving at a velocity close to light speed, “and you bend them with strong magnetic fields; the electrons are very high energy … [and] they radiate extraordinary mounts of electro-magnetic radiation.” He adds that this strong radiation from a beam in the storage ring also offers users a wide wavelength range, from infrared to X-ray.

The science then gets complicated, with the electron beam subjected to undulating magnetic forces as well as circular accelerating ones, but Winick says the key is that tightly controlled magnetic forces are energizing the beam and its radiation. Also, while the electron beam goes around in a circular motion, the radiation comes out straight and at a tangent. At these points, a pipe is attached to the storage ring to capture the radiation. Winick says the X-rays here are one million times more powerful than the ones used by Rosalind Franklin to reveal DNA’s double helix structure.

Sayers further explains how users find flexibility in the wavelength variety at a synchrotron: “You get white light out of the ring. And from this white light you select the different wavelengths. For example, you select X-ray wavelengths, you select infrared wavelengths, you select ultraviolet wavelength … That is one of the advantages of synchrotron energy source—it gives you diverse tools for experiments, for example, for medicine, art, nanomaterials.”

SESAME will begin with an X-ray fluorescence beamline—an X-ray modulated to cause some objects to partially radiate, allowing for a fuller composition and three-dimensional imaging. Sayers points out that this beam allows researchers to examine materials at the micrometer level and is noninvasive so it can be safely used for to research cultural artifacts. An infrared beamline for materials science is expected to go online later in 2016.

Many scientists at SESAME say they suspect their site will develop a niche for investigating heritage artifacts that require delicate and reverential care. An example that could typify future work out of SESAME was recently announced out of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France. The synchrotron provided a special type of X-ray technology, called X-ray phase-contrast tomography (XPCT), which enabled researchers to read scrolls that were too delicate to unroll having been blasted by volcanic gas and buried in ash by the A.D. 79 Vesuvius eruption.

Sayers says they are planning on a total of seven beamlines, and they won’t be limited to archaeological research. Sayers, for instance, investigates bioremediation, specifically the use of plants to restrict the spread of metal pollutants. Sayers says synchrotrons allow her to analyze fast-moving structural change in molecules, which is important for a variety of biological, health, and environmental studies.

Both Sayers and Winick emphasize that synchrotrons have a proven record of aiding scientists. Sayers points to four groups of Nobel Prize winners that used the technology for their biological investigations, such as the 2009 chemistry winners—Ada Yonath, Thomas Steitz, and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan—who explored the structure of ribosomes.

Winick’s confidence is further based on synchrotron experiences in Taiwan, Brazil, and South Korea, all of which invested in synchrotrons in the 1980s. Winick says that because of their synchrotron purchases, these places have had success in keeping scientists.

The director of the Taiwan Photon Source, Shangjr Gwo, said in an email that while Taiwan had only two experienced synchrotron scientists in the 1980s and 50 users in the mid-1990s; by 2014, Taiwan had 2,132 users, over 85 percent of whom were Taiwanese.

Winick is now at work promoting an African synchrotron center, which would address health and environmental issues particular to that region. The first formal summit to discuss the African synchrotron was in November 2015 at the European Synchrotron in Grenoble, France, where a road map was circulated for the development of the project.


SESAME projects have already generated science, and there is also ongoing research at other synchrotrons that will be transferred to SESAME when it becomes fully operational. Researchers looking at chromium pollution in the Middle East, for example, have been using synchrotrons in Germany and Italy.

Egyptian nuclear engineer Mohamed Yasser Khalil is the administrative director at SESAME, and he says there are already 10 people using a Fourier microscope at SESAME, including scientists from Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Iran. When everything goes online, the number of scientists at SESAME is expected to be around 300, but that could soon jump to as many as 1,500, according to Llewellyn Smith.

Sayers says she sees impressive training and good work occurring at SESAME. She adds that synchrotrons offer a unique climate for bringing people together: “My own experience is I might be sitting on one beamline doing experiments on biological samples, and the group next to me may be working on some archaeological samples and trying to analyze them,” says Sayers. “You start to make an effort to understand the kind of science each other is doing. You learn to trust each other, because you respect their science before anything else.”


Substantial challenges for SESAME remain and the most serious is funding. Right now, contributions from member states are keeping the project afloat. Llewellyn Smith explains, “When I joined [in 2008], the capital funding was evidently underestimated, and there was a huge gap in the funding we were getting. So there has been a huge challenge in persuading the members to put up money. And a number of them have done that.”

Jordan, which was selected as the SESAME site in 2000, has so far made the largest financial contribution, paying for the approximately $13 million construction of the SESAME campus as well as $3.75 million of its $5 million dollar member pledge. The Royal Court of Jordan has contributed an additional $3.4 million. An aforementioned $11 million EU contribution has proven critical. Israel and Turkey have each contributed $3.75 million of their $5 million pledges. And Iran has indicated that, with the lifting of economic sanctions, it will fulfill its $5 million pledge. Italy has contributed about $3 million dollars. And the CERN foundation, the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA), and other observer nations, foundations, labs, and scientific societies have contributed equipment, training, and guidance. “When the members started putting up money, then it was easier to turn outside,” says Llewellyn Smith.

But more financial support is needed, and a significant U.S. contribution would be especially helpful. The U.S. has given only about $500,000 during the early period of SESAME, but if the U.S. could match the EU donation, it would set SESAME on a more confident track and allow the project to focus on science rather than on funding. That contribution would help SESAME start off as a fully functioning synchrotron center with state of the art beamlines. Not as tangible but equally important, a U.S. donation would be viewed as an important expression of political support.

A public relations challenge for garnering support in the United States is that SESAME, like CERN, was initiated under the auspices of UNESCO, the U.N. cultural branch that has become controversial in the United States. In 2011, UNESCO recognized Palestinian statehood, something the U.S. Congress had deemed premature. In retaliation, the U.S. cut off funding for the U.N. organization. SESAME and CERN are independent operations, but the UNESCO association has hurt SESAME’s chances in the U.S. legislature.

Illinois Rep. Bill Foster, a Democrat, has taken the lead in Congress in advocating for the U.S. to support SESAME. Foster—who for 22 years was a particle physicist at Fermilab, which supports CERN on a number of high-energy investigations—also worked closely with former New Jersey congressman Rush Holt, an astrophysicist who chose not to seek re-election in 2014. Holt, who is the current CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), says, “The most important type of aid that an advanced country can give is what is generally known as capacity building—to help in building an indigenous scientific enterprise … SESAME does that, and to some extent, it is already doing that, helping the member nations develop indigenous scientific expertise.”

As to financial aid, Holt says, “The U.S. should be involved because we have tremendous scientific expertise … We have enough prestige so that even a token involvement in SESAME would help. Of course, SESAME needs more money. If we are not going to give tens of millions of dollars, if we are just to give a few million dollars to show support for this demonstration of regional science, we should at least do that.”

Foster says that past scientific collaborations show that a project like SESAME can work. Foster cites both his experience at Fermilab, with its tradition of international collaboration, and CERN, which embodies “the need of the nations to get along together when they did not have the strong tradition of getting along together.” In Geneva, he says, “the nations did come together and eventually accomplished something truly wonderful.”

Foster adds, “With SESAME, I see an attempt to take that model and transfer it to a place where nations are having a hard time getting along together.”

Foster also offers two additional reasons why the U.S. should contribute to SESAME: Iran and Jordan are both members of SESAME. Foster says with greater U.S. involvement in SESAME, there would be more direct scientist-to-scientist contact with Iranian scientists, which could strengthen the Iran deal. Iranian scientists working in Jordan might help promote a climate of openness and scientific transparency in the Iranian scientific establishment, according to Foster. Collegiality, adds Foster, is a hallmark of other synchrotron projects, and perhaps Iranian, American, and other scientists could build on a foundation of goodwill at SESAME.

Another point that Foster makes is that SESAME is an effective way to provide support for Jordan. The Office for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for example, estimates that in December 2015 Jordan would have nearly a million refugees living in its borders, mostly from Syria and Iraq. This is all the more reason to help out a U.S. ally, Foster says: “Jordan is under great stress from the influx of refugees into its territory as well as the combat nearby. So things that we can do, like support of SESAME, will really help strengthen Jordan.”

Finding money for SESAME in the U.S. Congress will not be easy. Foster says he and Holt were looking at “every nook and cranny that plausibly could direct money [to SESAME].”

Foster says in the current fiscal environment it will be “tough,” but he feels the pay-offs for the U.S. are clear: “I am optimistic that members of both parties will understand that this is money well spent.”

Despite the blocks to U.S. funding, there have been other gestures of support from within the United States. In addition to technical support from national labs, scientific societies have been helping to provide training. Amy Flatten, the director of International Affairs of the American Physical Society, regularly attends SESAME Council meetings, and, in 2007, noticed the need for training support. In 2008, she began a program for international science societies to aid in training SESAME workers and future users. Flatten says that about nine national and international science societies have helped over 100 scientists in the Middle East with SESAME-related travel and training. Flatten also says at least 25 percent of the various U.S. scientific societies’ support goes to women scientists and another 25 percent goes to young researchers.

“Science diplomacy is extremely powerful,” Flatten says, “because it is about doing things together” with concrete international programs that make a difference. Holt agrees and recalls the example of Soviet physicist Evgeny Velikhov, who participated in international forums and became one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s lead advisers during the glasnost period of better relations. Holt adds that science diplomacy has two facets: diplomacy for science and science for diplomacy. “Science for diplomacy is where scientific collaboration actually helps resolve international political conflict,” Holt says, adding that SESAME is a “good demonstration” of both.


Khalil says that as of late 2015 progress is continuing and that the synchrotron is set for activation in 2016. With the launch of the Middle East’s first synchrotron imminent, SESAME’s supporters are hopeful, despite the lack of U.S. financial support.

Rabinovici compares the construction of SESAME to a dream: “When I was at SESAME in March, the magnets just arrived from CERN … I thought that dreams are made of aery stuff; but when I touched the metal of the magnets, that moment, I was moved. I became emotional when I touched the metal.”

Llewellyn Smith says it is “remarkable” to see everyone coming together. “It is like an existence theorem that it is in fact possible for people of goodwill, who wish to collaborate across boundaries, to put out their hand and find someone on the other side of the frontier who will grab their hand and try to work with them.”

Rabinovici and Llewellyn Smith echo the repeated urgings of Salam who wrote, “In advanced scientific research, it is the personal element that counts more than the institutional.” Salam concluded, “If … we could build the morale of the active research worker and persuade him not to make himself an exile, we shall have won a real battle for the establishment of a creative scientific life in the developing countries.” That’s a victory SESAME seeks as it readies to fully open in 2016 as a leading scientific center.



Richard Blaustein is a science and environmental journalist based in Washington, D.C. He tweets @richblaustein.

[Photo courtesy of Canadian Light Source]

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