SESAME:  A New Accelerator Of Science And Middle East Peace

Modeled on Swiss-based nuclear research center CERN after the 1994 Oslo accords, the idea of the Amman-based facility is to use science as a way to learn to work together in the Middle East.


AMMAN — The muezzin's sends out the last call to prayer in the winter twilight. The cube-shaped houses lined up against Amman's 19 hills take on pastel tones as the sun sets. But a new source of light emerged on Jan. 11 — one that aims to bathe the entire Middle East. They are the first rays of particles circulated at Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, or SESAME. The project has been conceived of as a model of scientific diplomacy, a different way to try to bring about peace.

"Having long been a promise, it's now become a reality," says Giorgio Paolucci, the Italian scientific director of SESAME.

The entrance to SESAME, with its Greek columns, evokes a Las Vegas-themed casino. Inside, dozens of concrete blocks, arranged in a star shape, cover the 133-meter particle accelerator. In the control room, a Jordanian technician explains to an Israeli chemist the machine's nuances. Further away, a Pakistani professor with a long, square-shaped beard listens to the Egyptian manager Gihan Kamel. This is actually the 14th SESAME users meeting, where dozens of specialists arrived from Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, and Palestine — the consortium's nine member countries.

Any resemblance to CERN, the European Council for Nuclear Research born in Geneva in 1954 in the middle of the Cold War, is obvious.

Nobody believed in it.

"The key idea is to bring together scientists from Middle Eastern countries that sometimes have tense relations to work on applied science projects," Paolucci explains.

For now, at least, the recipe seems to be working. Israeli biophysicist Roy Beck-Barkai led a presentation on the best ways to exploit synchrotron's potential. His audience, made up of mostly young Arab searchers, listened with care.

"Ten years ago, many would have left the room simply because of the speaker's nationality," says an emotional Kamel. "It's the achievement of our common vision."

This vision was born in 1994, just after the Oslo accords between Israel and Palestine. The idea was to use science as a vehicle of cooperation in the Middle East.

"Nobody believed in it," recollects Eliezer Rabinovici, a physicist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Long road

A symposium followed in 1995, with hundreds of local researchers and Nobel Prize laureates crowding under a tent in the Egyptian Sinai. There was plenty of good will but no ideas on how to make it materialize. In 1997, two physicists, American Herman Winick and German Gus Voss, saw there was a "hole between the Middle East and Africa" on the world map of synchrotrons and offered to recycle one from Berlin, "Bessy I", which was on its way to a junkyard.

The idea gained momentum. Each of the consortium's members listed what they could bring to the project.

"In 2003, the King of Jordan decided to support the project by offering land," explains Khaled Toukan, the director of SESAME. "The choice of Amman for the location was appropriate because only this country had maintained diplomatic relations with all of the others." The project was placed under the auspices of UNESCO.

But it soon emerged that the idea of recycling an old accelerator wasn't the best way to truly advance the cause of science, says Paolucci. Some of the elements of Bessy I had to be converted into an electron booster for SESAME. So the structure of the future synchrotron was brought anew.

During its gestation, SESAME went through plenty of twists and turns: The roof collapsed because of snow, two Iranian nuclear scientists and members of the SESAME council were killed and, most importantly, funding was low. The slightest political jolt in the region affected the consortium. When the government changed in Egypt, the funds allocated to the project were frozen. Iran wasn't able to pay its share at first because of the economic embargo and financial sanctions.

The situation improved in 2012 when the CERN, via its former director Chris Llewellyn Smith, convinced the European Union to allocate money to the project. This encouraged other European governments to support the project. But neither the U.S. nor Saudi Arabia followed suit because of Iran's presence.

Even though the total budget wasn't secured, the synchrotron was constructed and launched. It's now set to be inaugurated on May 16 in the presence of the King of Jordan.

Dead Sea alive

So, what will the installation do? It can be used in a variety of subjects from materials science and archaeology to chemistry and biology. Beck-Barkai is thinking about using it to study how nano molecules assemble. His fellow countryman Jan Gunneweg, a specialist in Dead Sea Scrolls, wants to shed light on how they were made using SESAME.

Kamel says she hopes to use the instrument's infrared either to improve mammary biopsies or to study the therapeutic effect of plant oils extracts on tissue infected with Alzheimer's. The Pakistani professor Imran wants to find out how to create pharmacological molecules with lower side-effects. Meanwhile, Palestinian Bassalat is going to use the machine to track the presence of germs in drinking water.

SESAME will also benefit from the technology transfer it brings, says Toukan: "The goal is to make it world-class science."

Paolucci says the central criteria for using the machine will be neither political or economic, but: "scientific merit."

Iranians, in particular, look on this project with a favorable eye. Mahmoud Tabrizchi, a chemist from the Isfahan University, reckons that SESAME has helped his country by stimulating the construction of their own synchrotron, 100 kilometers from Tehran, which is expected to be completed within seven years. "We intend to learn a lot from SESAME," he notes.

"There are about 60 other such installations in the world but not enough time to use them for all projects. Just like you don't need a Ferrari to drive your children to school, this one will be more than enough for many experiments," says Beck-Barkai. So much so that it will be working 24/7.

Peace at last?

Maedeh Darzi, a young researcher in archaeometry from Iran who works with Jan Gunneweg, an Israeli, says about SESAME's ability to bring about peace: "I believe so, even though it will take time."

On the other side of the Jordan River from SESAME, people are more cautious.

Great things often start with small steps.

"I live in Nablus in the West Bank, 80 kilometers away, but it took me more than a day to get here because the border isn't always open," Palestinian Ahmad Bassalat says. "One of my Ph.D. students was denied entry into Jordan for security reasons even though he has a French grant."

Bassalat wonders what the point is in "talking about science" in Amman if it's impossible to get there for political reasons. "Peace is elsewhere," he says.

Imran adds: "Like music and arts, science has no borders. That said, peace is a great thing. But great things often start with small steps."

The diplomatic expectations have an effect on the work of scientists. "Yes, we do feel the pressure," Kamel admits. "But now, all researchers of the region have their own need to make it succeed. And even if the Western support should stop, I'm positive we'll still make it. This common motivation alone already feels like peace."

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]


Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos


• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.


"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.


$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.


What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."


An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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