Taking Center Stage, Again: The Middle East’s Particle Accelerator

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The coast was clear. No sight of the forty thieves was found in all directions. Ali Baba slowly made his way to the cave, then stopped before the huge boulder that blocked its entrance. Inside were treasures of unfathomable value – gold, jewels, and sparkling things. Who knows what else? Ali Baba had to get in. He knew the secret password. Two words. Loudly spoken. He took a deep breath. There was nothing to lose. There was everything to gain.

Open Sesame!

True enough, the boulder did move. And Ali Baba came home a bag of treasures richer that night.

Similarly, a group of scientists from Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine, and Turkey uncovered a scientific treasure when they altogether exclaimed open SESAME.

That’s right. SESAME. If we unpack each letter we get Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East.

SESAME is a synchrotron research facility based in Jordan. It is a particle accelerator smaller in scale to that of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. It’s not the first of its kind, though. There are about 30,000 particle accelerators in operation around the world right now. Around 60 of them are synchrotron accelerators. In fact, SESAME is a third-generation synchrotron facility. But its late arrival to the party is not the point. Its importance does not lie in its novelty. What it aims to highlight and bring to the scientific world is the needed cooperation and collaboration for science research in its region.

It is the perfect marriage of diplomacy and quality science.

The Middle East has been home to many of the world’s greatest scientists, and it helped usher the Islamic Golden Age when the Abbasid caliphate championed research in various fields of knowledge. But history and politics have been unkind. Marred and rocked by a series of wars both regional and worldwide, the Middle East has had to take a break on the sidelines and watch Europe take the lead in scientific advancements. SESAME is an initiative to break free from the shackles of history and create anew the former ties that once connected these nations in one golden intellectual web.

The particle accelerator housed in SESAME is a synchrotron. It is a series of devices that move electrons in an orbital trajectory to produce strong and powerful light beams. Its structure looks like two circles connected to each other: a small one wrapped inside a bigger one. And this is where I start to bore you with the details, but I hope to explain things clearly so as not to keep your heads from spinning. tehee. The electron journey starts with a device called the electron gun which is also found inside the big circle and near the small one. How does the electron gun function? Well, a piece of metal placed inside the electron gun is heated to free electrons through a process called thermionic emission. The freed and emitted electrons are then fired to the next device called the linac (short for linear accelerator) which direct them to the next station. The electrons enter the small circle, called the booster ring, where they marathon around thanks to electromagnetic persuasion. As they travel around and around the ring they gain more energy and get accelerated to velocities close to the speed of light, which is 299,792 km/second. If you don’t know how fast that is, just imagine yourself versus a light beam in a 100-meter race. Before the event even began, you already lost. That’s how fast it is. Accept your loss and let’s go back to the synchrotron. In the next episode, the electrons are admitted entry into the big circle called the storage ring, where, like in the booster, they travel in the same circular pattern. Placed along the edges of the storage ring are stations that wait for electrons to come in and shine their light on their experimental set-ups. Magnets are in charge of coaxing electrons to enter the stations through beam lines that will configure the light they emit to produce the necessary light profile (x-ray, gamma, microwave, ultraviolet, etc.). The movement of electrons outside their orbital path, as they get bent into the light beams, make them lose energy that take the form of powerful and intense lights, which are called synchrotron radiations.

In order to help visualize all of that, here’s the layout of Oxford university’s Diamond sychrotron.


The Royal Society©

Located 30km northwest of the Jordan’s capital Amman, in a town called Alan, stands SESAME tall and proud. It officially opened its doors on May 16, 2017. The idea, however, is far far older. Plans for building it had been floating since 1995 when the Middle East Scientific Cooperation Group (MESC) first held talks about the possibility of starting such a project. In 2002, after lots and discussions and debates, notwithstanding multiple regional conflicts, the plan for its construction was given the go signal with the backing of UNESCO.

And now here it is. Finally.


Jacques Herve Fichet/CERN©

Where governments failed, science came to the rescue.

That is not to say that there is no politics involved though, that would be silly. But looking at SESAME, where a Palestinian and an Israeli scientist can work side by side each other for example, does bring a message of hope and a platform for peace to a region that desperately needs both. The arbitrary and artificial divisions brought by religion, race, and nationality are all shed in order to don the more universal theme of humanity. It is a celebration of diversity.

Diversity it is, even in the various branches of knowledge that it will cultivate and enrich. Light from the synchrotron accelerator has the potential to be used in many fields of research. It acts like a big giant light bulb that can illuminate previously unseen things hiding in the shadows. For example, biologists can greatly benefit from its light when analyzing complex protein structures. Moreover, its bright light can banish the dark in other fields traditionally closer to the humanities, like archaeology where accurate dating of artifacts and manuscripts is important. Similar to Tinder, it can help establish dates with relative ease. A mathematical manuscript that dates from the 8th century? It’s a match!

The people behind SESAME are already looking forward far into the future. Turkish biophysicist and Scientific Advisory Committee chair for SESAME Zehra Sayers says that SESAME “means a better world in many aspects, in terms of bringing science here, in terms of bringing a line of communication.” She understands, along with her colleagues, that while the successful construction of the facility is a cause for optimism, the real challenge is to pursue high quality world-class science. That is precisely what SESAME is there for: to gather the best minds in the region and provide them with the necessary technology to do their research. This may be the very legacy that these pioneers want to establish, as Sayers further adds that, “this is something that I would like to leave to the next generation.”

In November 22, 2017, the very first light from the SESAME synchrotron accelerator was produced and captured. Things are starting up. Like Ali Baba and his treasures, the time to recover the lost scientific legacy of the Middle East has come. It is right in front of us. Open SESAME – the needed flash of light has finally arrived to cast a brighter future for the Middle East.


Read more about SESAME in their official brochure by clicking here.

Disclaimer: As I am not a physicist by trade, I welcome all corrections for the description I made regarding how synchrotron accelerators operate. All comments are welcome!

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