Page last updated at 19:53 GMT, Tuesday, 11 November 2008

'Science for peace' project needs cash

By Roland Pease
BBC Radio Science Unit

Sesame project (Sesame)
The Jordanians are hosting Sesame

A scientific experiment intended to foster peace in the Middle East is foundering for want of a few million dollars.

Sesame (the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) is being built on the outskirts of Amman in Jordan.

Much of the facility has already been assembled, largely from donations from Europe, the United States and Japan. But the last key component, a particle accelerator 124m in circumference, is missing because of a lack of funding.

The Sesame project was first conceived 11 years ago, by an American and a German, Herman Winick and Guss Voss, as a focal point to bring together scientists from across the Middle East in a single facility.

And that it's already achieving.

Sesame is a place where you can find side by side, Palestinian and Israeli, Turk and Cypriot, Iranian and Egyptian.

The seed for Sesame was Bessy-I, a German synchrotron - a high-tech light source - that was being dismantled to make way for a larger, better replacement.

Regional map

"I asked what they were going to do with Bessy-I," says Herman Winick, a synchrotron expert advising the German government at the time.

"Answer: we're going to call in a junk-yard dealer, cut it up into small pieces, and get rid of it for the cheapest price."

Professor Winick found a clean piece of paper, did a few quick calculations, and turned to his neighbour, Guss Voss.

"They shouldn't destroy such a beautiful machine! It should be offered as a gift by the German government to be the centrepiece of a new facility in the Middle East."

The idea echoed what had happened when Cern, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, had been first proposed in the late 1940s. With the old wounds of World War II still causing friction, and the best scientific talent heading for the US, Cern was conceived as a centre of excellence to bring former enemies together, and halt the brain drain.

And in the 1990s, a Cern group were in fact looking to replicate the model in the Middle East, but were at a loss as to what kind of facility to promote.

Gunter Voss turned up with the Bessy-I proposal, which was enthusiastically welcomed, and with Unesco support, became a reality.

Synchrotron schematic (BBC)

These machines start by firing electrons into a straight accelerator, or linac
The electrons are boosted in a small synchrotron and then injected into a larger storage ring
Magnets in the large ring bend and focus the electrons which are accelerated to near light-speeds
Energy lost emerges down beamlines as highly focused light at X-ray and other wavelengths
This light can be used to probe the nature and performance of materials held at target stations
The data helps develop new drugs and materials; archaeological items are also studied

So far so good. Bessy-I was crated up, and sent to Jordan, which participants agreed would be the best host.

Those parts are now being re-assembled in the vast experimental hall the Jordanians also built. Further equipment has been pledged - several beamlines, which extract and condition the light from the storage ring, have arrived from Daresbury in the UK, where the world's first dedicated X-ray synchrotron source (the SRS) recently closed.

And with growing confidence, the team decided the German donation should become the kernel of a larger, better machine, which could be added on to the refurbished Bessy-I.

But that's where the problems start. Although the design is completed, and the engineers are ready to start work, Sesame is 15m euros ($19m) short.

This is a trivial sum, by the standards of most scientific enterprises.

Yasser Khalil, the Egyptian administrative director of Sesame, ruefully recalled a recent online auction for number plates in the Saudi peninsula.

"The number plate 5-5-5-5-5, five 5s, was bought for $15m…" The money, he implies, is clearly there.

The Jordanians, having dedicated the land and the building to house the experiment, clearly feel they've done more than enough to get the project off the ground.

Professor Winick has just visited Saudi Arabia to try to persuade the kingdom to sign up to the collaboration, but warns those paying attention not to expect too much.

"The Saudis are tired of being invited by their Arab neighbours to dinner, and winding up paying the bill. But the Saudis are in many ways the leaders in the area, and I think if Saudi Arabia did join many of the other Gulf states would come on board."

In the meantime, scientists already working for Sesame show signs of impatience. Most of them have had to go abroad to study, have established themselves as researchers, and are faced with the prospects of staying away from home forever to pursue their career, or return to their families and leave front-line science behind.

Bessy-1 (Sesame)
A refurbished Bessy-I forms the centrepiece of the Sesame facility

Dr Mohammed Gharaibeh, who earned his PhD at Berkeley, California, adds that synchrotrons are ideal facilities for scientists to meet and mix.

"At Sesame we will have 24 beamlines, and the beamlines operate simultaneously, with some people working in the infrared, others in the ultraviolet, others in X-rays. So a wide range of experiments. And they're sitting close to each other. And there can be up to seven or eight people working at the end of any beamline."

Technical director Dr Amor Nadji, who also is a leading member of staff at France's latest synchrotron Soleil, agrees Sesame can bring people together.

"We are scientists; I am a scientist, you are a scientist, and we can talk together even though we are different. And, for sure, if you are a Palestinian you can be close to an Israeli, and you can talk together, you can work together. And maybe this can help.

"We got sick of politicians," says Dr Gharaibeh. "The problems that they cause, the way they squeeze us. We want to do something good for us, and for you actually."

With the extra, they could be doing that in two years. If it doesn't arrive…

You can hear more this week on BBC Radio 4's Frontiers programme and on the BBC World Service on the Discovery programme

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