Synchrotron facility succeeds as a peacemaker

At Jordan-hosted SESAME, science diplomacy brings together scientists from conflicting countries

Scientists are seen during work at SESAME in Allan, near Salt, in this undated photo – (Photo: courtesy of SESAME)
AMMAN — “You see the picture of the COVID-19 virus that is everywhere nowadays? Well, the shape of the virus was discovered in a facility like this one,” said Andrea Lausi, the science director at the Jordan-based SESAME facility.اضافة اعلان

SESAME or the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East is hosted by the tranquil mountainous village of Allan near Salt, 27km to the northwest of Amman.

The state-of-the-art center is “just like any other synchrotron facility, where we study materials and biological samples. It’s a tool, it’s a sort of a Swiss army knife for science and experiments that can be of impact in a wide range of fields from archaeology, cultural heritage, medicine, energy, chemistry, and physics. You name it,” the director said.

“So, if a mummy was dug up, we can get a sample of that and analyze the history of the material, how it degraded and trace the materials used to embalm the mummy,” said Gehan Kamel, an Egyptian scientist working at SESAME.

If you dig deeper, you will find that SESAME is equally good at “science diplomacy”, bringing together scientists from rival countries with a long history of animosity, like Iran and Israel or Turkey and Cyprus.

Its ranks include scientists from Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine, and Turkey, whose representatives now feel comfortable to sit together and discuss science for the sake of humanity.

“We meet with a common aim, to enable and support good science. Only science is discussed at SESAME meetings and the atmosphere is generally excellent,” a veteran SESAME scientist, Professor Chris Smith, told Jordan News in an emailed response.

Luasi seconded that. “We are curious, knowledge-thirsty people, and when we are sitting here, we only discuss science.”

That explains why SESAME won the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Award for Science Diplomacy in 2019.

The project was funded by UNESCO, with the intention of bringing people closer together. The organization emailed Jordan News a comment citing its constitution as stating that “the purpose of the organization is to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science, and culture.”

While COVID-19 limited the possibility of in-person meetings, SESAME continued to conduct its work and aid the research of scientists from member countries through a procedure dubbed “mail-in”.

“Sometimes, member states collaborate on the same research. By far, most proposals come from a single university or research group. But not so rarely, scientists [from member states] collaborate like everywhere around the world, so we have an epitome of science diplomacies such as a proposal made by Palestine together with Cyprus and Turkey — one single proposal from these three countries,” Lausi said.

Needless to say, some of the member countries have strained political relations. Turkey and Cyprus have been colliding over Mediterranean maritime borders, while the relationship between Iran and Israel almost reached a point of no return as their governments traded threats that have kept the world on its toes.

“Well, Iranian scientists have not vowed to destroy me,” Professor Roy Beck of Tel Aviv University told the BBC in 2012. “I mean, Iranian and Palestinian and Pakistani scientists are my friends because they are scientists, so we have a common ground. This is really the essence of what SESAME can bring to the region.”

In fact, the Iranian scientists that have used SESAME were busy examining a set of historical illuminated Quran manuscripts from the Qajar period in Iran.

“It was a great experience and I presented some preliminary results at the 16th SESAME users meeting,” said Maedeh Darzi, an Iranian scientist and a PhD candidate in archaeological science at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

She agreed that everyone at SESAME speaks the language of science. “We attend [events] and interact as scientists and not politicians there. We have a common language, which is science, and we share our ideas without considering nationalities,” the Iranian scholar said in an email to Jordan News.

She also commended SESAME’s “outstanding role” as a hub of science diplomacy as it helps in building a “bridge between nations through scientific collaboration, cooperation, and interaction. Therefore, I do believe this will lead to building trust, peace, and further understanding” in the region.

In 2020, SESAME received 151 proposals from scientists. These proposals are studied for technical feasibility and the shortlist is then sent to be peer reviewed. Once approved, scientists are invited to conduct their research according to a schedule, free of charge.

“We do not charge scientists; our member states contribute to our funding, so we do not need to charge scientists,” said Lausi.

Observers also help, namely, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the European Union (EU), France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US.

For instance, the EU funded a project to install solar panels, which renders the facility the world’s only solar power-generated synchrotron, taking the electricity bill value from $300,000 per month to almost zero.

Turkey is funding a new beamline at a cost of around $5 million to increase the number of beamlines to three, while three others are expected to be installed over the next five years.

“The research conducted is only a few steps away from being applied in our daily lives,” Lausi said. “Once the practical concepts are proven, these concepts are then looked at from an economic feasibility point of view,” Lausi said.