Science knows no borders in the Middle East: Bob McDonald

A new light synchrotron to be constructed in Jordan signals scientific cooperation in a region plagued by conflict and rivalry.

New particle accelerator in Jordan is an unusual cooperation between countries

A diagram of a synchrotron. The light blue beams are accelerated electrons, which, when bent, emit synchrotron light (in yellow) which can then be used for experiments (EPSIM 3D/JF Santarelli, Synchrotron Soleil)

The first synchrotron light source in the Middle East officially opened in Jordan, bringing together countries that have traditionally been in conflict for the sake of fundamental science.

The project is called SESAME, which stands for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East. A light synchrotron is a kind of particle accelerator — a large ring of powerful magnets that boosts electrons to tremendous speeds, which then produces extremely powerful beams of light. These devices can act as a gigantic microscope. The beams can be used to illuminate materials ranging from contaminants in river water samples to the molecular structure of drugs to fine details in ancient manuscripts.

Canada's synchrotron, the Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon. (Canadian Light Source Inc, cc-by-sa-2.0)
There are more than 50 light synchrotrons around the world, including the Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon, but this is the first in the Middle East, and the first true international centre for excellence in the region. An unlikely alliance between Jordan, Israel, Iran, Cyprus, Egypt, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey came together on the project. This is particularly remarkable considering many of these countries, including Israel and Iran, and Cyprus and Turkey, do not have diplomatic relations with each other.

The project was proposed 20 years ago and has suffered delays and funding problems because of those political differences, but in the end, the values of science prevailed. The name, SESAME, is in reference to the magic phrase "Open Sesame," from the story of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, and is meant to symbolize the open nature of the project. The founders also hope to encourage young scientists in the Middle East to stay in the region, and reduce the brain drain of talent to Europe and the United States.

So far, $90 million has been invested in SESAME from both the member countries and organizations such as CERN, which operates the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and UNESCO. This international project, along with the International Space Station, which involves more than 15 countries, are wonderful examples of how political differences can be put aside for the sake of doing good science.

The International Space Station (NASA)

In fact, the International Space Station is a great example of this kind of peaceful cooperation. It began as an all American project called Freedom in the 1980s. But the emphasis shifted with the end of the Cold War, and so to build it, the U.S. joined forces with its former space rival, Russia, as well as a team of several other nations, including Canada. The modules that make up the current orbiting laboratory were made in the U.S., Russia, Europe and Japan with Canada providing the robotic arm Canadarm 2 and Dextre. It continues to be a truly international collaboration, despite political tensions between the U.S. and Russia.

Ideally, science should know no borders. It is an effort to understand how the world works from the tiniest quarks out to clusters of galaxies at the edge of the known universe. Because it is trying to understand nature as a whole, and because it affects the planet as a whole, it should be a global effort. In the current climate of nationalism and isolation, perhaps politicians can learn a lesson from science and work together internationally for the common good.

About the Author

Bob McDonald

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.