Advance research centre in Amman stronger than Mideast wars and divisions
Sesame is the result of cooperation between the region’s governments and scientists, including Iran, Israel, and Egypt. The facility hosts a synchrotron that can help understand cancerous tissue, ancient scrolls, seeds, and plants. This might be the start of a new era in collaborative science. For an Iranian scientist, “Science is different from politics.”
Amman (AsiaNews) – In a region marked by conflicts and divisions – ranging from Syria to Iraq and the Holy Land – an advanced research centre represents a rare show of unity among Mideast nations.
The facility is located on the outskirts of Amman (Jordan), and shows that, despite political tensions and rows, adversaries can come together for a common goal.
Called Sesame – Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East –, it hosts a synchrotron, a particle accelerator that acts as a powerful microscope.
Researchers from various countries, including Iranians, Israelis, and Palestinians who would never normally meet, will now use the machine together.
The name is a play on the famous phrase "Open Sesame" and is meant to signal a new era of collaborative science.
By generating intense beams of light, synchrotrons provide exceptionally detailed views of everything, from cancerous tissue to ancient parchments to plant diseases.
Sesame's vast white building, located amid dusty hills some 35km north of the Jordanian capital of Amman, makes a stark contrast to the olive groves around it.
The idea of a Middle Eastern synchrotron was first proposed 20 years ago but the sheer novelty of the plan and the extreme sensitivities of the region led to endless delays in finance, design and construction.
For most of the past decade, a British physicist, Prof Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, has taken the project through a series of obstacles.
For a start, Israel and Iran do not have diplomatic relations with each other, nor do fellow Turkey and Cyprus.
At one point Iran was unable to pay its share because of international sanctions on banking, and two Iranian scientists working on Sesame were killed in what the Iranian government said were assassinations by the Israeli secret service.
After a freak snowstorm, the Sesame roof collapsed leaving key components exposed to the elements.
Yet, "The real problem has been finding the money - the countries in this region have science budgets that you can hardly see with a microscope," Smith said.
The turning point came in 2012 when Israel, Iran, Jordan and Egypt each agreed to contribute USm provided that all the others did too. That led to more funding from Italy, the European Union, and UNESCO.
There are some 60 synchrotrons in use around the world but Sesame will be the first in the Middle East.
Its purpose is to provide the region’s young scientists with a reason not to emigrate to Europe or America, thus stemming the brain drain of research talent.
Dr Gihan Kamel is an Egyptian who returned to the Middle East from a synchrotron in Italy in order to work at Sesame. She sees the facility as vital for establishing advanced science in the region, enabling it to develop techniques for the early detection of cancer or for analysing key crops to improve agriculture or explore treasured documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls which are 2,000 years old.
The opening was "a very moving moment,” said Prof Eliezer Rabinovici, a leading Israeli physicist. In his view, "People and scientists from all over the region as well as many parts of the world have demonstrated that one can work together over decades for a common goal benefitting humanity".
For Prof Mahmoud Tabrizchi, a senior Iranian scientist, "Science is different from politics”, and Sesame is "the greatest event in science in the Middle East".