Want to bring peace to the Middle East? Use some science

In which international organization do delegates from Israel and Iran sit side-by-side in harmony? Hint: It's not the U.N. SESAME, or Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, has united several countries in the quest to bring a light synchrotron to the Mid-East.

Top image of SESAME facility: SESAME.org.jo

In a light synchrotron, electrons race around a circular track, picking up energy, until they are charged up and ready to move into a storage ring. In this ring, the particles continue to move in a circle, generating the high-intensity light called synchrotron radiation, which then moves down various beamlines. Beamlines radiate from a storage ring like the rays of a cartoon sun, and each line contains mirrors and optical devices to control and adjust the synchrotron radiation, adapting it for specific applications. Because of the radiation's brightness and polarization, it is ideal for imaging various materials from crystals to proteins.

And having multiple beamlines means that many experiments can take place simultaneously at a single synchrotron. Facilities that include light synchrotrons, such as some of the Department of Energy national laboratories in the US, open their doors to scientists from all over the world who need synchrotron light for their research. But while Middle Eastern scientists can trek to the U.S or Europe if they need a synchrotron, having one close to home comes with its own benefits.

The term "brain drain" refers to the phenomenon where skilled workers and intellectuals leave poor countries in favor of more opportunities and a stabler environment in wealthier locales. For example, a scientist in Iran may choose to emigrate to America, where he or she could live near a synchrotron, as well as avoiding Iran's strict governmental restrictions. Although this move may be beneficial for the scientist, it prevents him or her from contributing to the knowledge and economy of her/his native country. By building a synchrotron in the Middle East, project SESAME could keep scientists in the region.

Not every Middle Eastern country has a serious brain drain problem. But most of the region does suffer from political instability, with both the recent revolutions of the Arab Spring, and also the traditional animosity between countries like Iran and Israel. Building a collaborative synchrotron, where scientists from all over the Middle East can work together, is a form of science diplomacy, allowing Iranians to meet Israelis on common ground.

This lack of animosity is unusual in Middle Eastern relations. "I was always curious about what a parallel universe was like, and know I know," says string theorist Eliezer Rabinovici, of Hebrew University. "I'm living in one when I go to SESAME meetings." And in this volatile region, forming friendships that transcend geographical boundaries can be vital. In a presentation at the American Physical Society (APS) March Meeting, Winick discussed how scientists can stand up for each other when human rights are threatened. Organizations like Scholars at Risk encourage researchers to help their colleagues who may be in danger from oppressive regimes, whether by dedicating a talk to the at-risk scientist or participating in a letter campaign.

Although the synchrotron is still under construction at its site in Jordan, user meetings for the project are already having effects. "Hundreds of scientists in the region have benefited from funding and from workshops," says Herman Winick, a SLAC physicist who, along with Gus Voss, came up with the idea for SESAME in 1997. The meetings are educational opportunities, and a chance for scientists to meet others who share their research interests. Israel and Egypt may have political differences, but SESAME user meetings have already yielded collaborations between scientists from both countries.

Still don't think that SESAME has enough going for it? It's also a chance for a little recycling. Synchrotrons are like iPhones – when a new version comes out, everybody wants to upgrade. As technology has advanced, synchrotrons have passed through three "generations," each providing better light than the previous one. And although it takes a lot more money and effort for a laboratory to upgrade its synchrotron than it does for you to purchase the latest gadget, it does happen – and then the labs ditch the previous incarnation of their synchrotron.

Take BESSY, a German synchrotron that started running in the 1980s. By the ‘90s, BESSY was no longer cutting-edge, and it was decommissioned in favor of BESSY II. Despite its former status as a multi-million Euro piece of scientific equipment, BESSY I would have been disassembled and sold for scrap. But Winick, who was on Bessy's board at the time, calculated that with some modifications, BESSY I could still produce x-rays up to the standard of modern synchrotrons. Winick and a few other European physicists suggested that with parts from other decommissioned accelerators, BESSY I could be reincarnated as the Middle East's own third-generation synchrotron.

The pieces of BESSY sailed to Jordan in 2002, and SESAME team members faced the tough task of building the facility to house the apparatus (the shielding to protect users from radiation was installed last year), reassembling BESSY with its added parts, and maintaining funding and political support for the project. UNESCO and non-Middle-Eastern scientific organizations have pledged support, as have some Middle Eastern governments. And in addition to funding, the participating countries can provide support and scientists, and the site: Jordan's proposed site had to defeat 17 other proposals from 6 other countries.

Although work continues on SESAME, as of the end of last year, members of the project estimated that it will be completed in 2015. And it could serve as an inspiration for more synchrotron-recycling projects for more facilities outside the US and Western Europe.