SESAME Field Trip: Open-door for science | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 04.11.2019
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End of the road

SESAME Field Trip: Open-door for science

"By the time we got to the synchrotron in Jordan, the story was already told." DW's Zulfikar Abbany went on a tour of the Middle East for science journalists. This is the seventh and final part of his diary.

Read the first part of Zulfikar Abbany's Middle East Diary here.

Honestly, I hate the idea of quoting myself. But by the time we got to the synchrotron in Jordan, the story was already told.

We had been traveling through Israel and the Palestinian West Bank — Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nablus — on our way to a synchrotron in Jordan. It's known as SESAME, or Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East.

Read more: Models of science and society

Watch video 05:37

Accelerating particles for peace

Our trip was organized by CERN and largely subsidized by the European Union's Open SESAME Project.

Any other day and any other region, I would have been the first to have branded this trip a "junket" — a shamefully expensive trip for professionals, paid for with public money. But this was something else. It was close to a public service.

You need to visit the Middle East and speak to the people if you want any chance of understanding their lives. And, in this case, the complications they face as scientists. I knew that, but I needed reminding.

Towards the light

So, conflicts of interest aside, it was strange to finally arrive at the synchrotron on the Thursday of our week and realize that there was very little left to say.

Inauguration stone at the SESAME synchrotron (DW/Z. Abbany)

An inauguration stone at the SESAME synchrotron in Jordan

We met some wonderful scientists. For instance, Gihan Kamel, an infrared beamline specialist from Egypt. Kamel showed us wonderful archaeological samples.

And the facility itself, built at the start with donations from a retired facility from Germany called BESSY I, was as it would be anywhere else in the world.

The one exception being that SESAME is the only synchrotron in the Middle East.

Inspirational note on someone's office door: Work for a cause, not for applause. Live life to express, not to impress. (DW/Z. Abbany)

Words of action and inspiration at SESAME: 'Work for a cause, not for applause'

As such, it's attracting scientists from around the region, because it's so much easier and safer for them to take fragile samples by car to a facility that's virtually in their neighborhood. Imagine flying an ancient Egyptian mummy to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, or to one in the USA. A Nightmare.

Read more: Reality checks in Jerusalem

Part of the BESSY I facility donated by Germany to the SESAME synchrotron (DW/Z. Abbany)

Old BESSY: Part of an old German facility that was donated to kickstart the SESAME project

And SESAME's got something else going for it, too. It's the first in the world to be powered by solar. These facilities are power-hungry, so there's got to be a future in that. How about moving all synchrotrons to the Middle East?

"Yes, that's a good idea! Why not?" says Ahmet Bassalat of An-Najah National University. "But I don't think they'd do it."

Because, he says, there is an advantage in having synchrotrons all around the world. There's an "added value" of having SESAME in this region and near to Middle East countries, as scientists can avoid traveling for days. And the same is true for all scientists.

Egyptian scientist Gihan Kamel at the SESAME synchrotron (DW/Z. Abbany)

Gihan Kamel, an infrared beamline scientist, holds a few of the samples she's working on at the SESAME synchrotron

"If we get beamtime, we could leave Nablus in the morning, get there before lunch, maybe have a quick beamtime, and by night we could be back home," he says. "And that's a privilege."

But it's a big if.

Half-open doors

Over the past few days, we had found there are those who are free to apply for and get beamtime at SESAME, and there are others for whom it's not so easy.

In Palestine, there are both political and academic obstacles.

If we're talking about collaborating with Israeli scientists, some Palestinians feel they simply cannot do that with the current political situation.

And if we're talking about getting any beamtime at all, the Palestinian universities we visited often lag behind international standards — by their own admission — so they're just not getting a look in. To them, the door is closed. 

Workmen at the SESAME synchrotron Jordan (DW/Z. Abbany)

SESAME, a work in progress

Read more: Warning! You are entering Area A

But Hadil Abualrob, another physicist at An-Najah National University, and Bassalat's wife, may have found a workaround.

Abualrob is an expert in special kinds of magnets that are used in synchrotrons — things like wigglers and undulators.

So she wants to contribute to the SESAME project by being involved in the technology that runs it.

"We need to collaborate with our partners as experts from other synchrotrons," Abualrob says. "We cannot do this alone. Even European synchrotrons have to collaborate, because they can't all do everything. And we need to collaborate to jump up the ladder."

Positive discrimination

There is one other solution. It was mentioned to me in the back of a bus as we drove from Nablus to the Allenby Crossing into Jordan. And that is: Lower the bar for Palestinian researchers.

Label on a sextupole magnet from CERN at the SESAME synchrotron in Jordan (DW/Z. Abbany)

CERN is as much a model as a mentor and partner for the SESAME synchrotron in Jordan

That's not to make it easier for them, or to lower standards overall. It's that, through enabling collaborations at a facility like SESAME, Palestinian scientists may both improve their skills to international standards and climb that ladder as well.

Then they could take those skills back home to train new generations and perhaps get more support for improving the facilities and funding at their own universities.

"We have agreements with Palestinian institutions and we bring students to train them here," said Giorgio Paolucci, SESAME's scientific director, when we met.

SESAME's scientific director, Giorgio Paolucci (DW/Z. Abbany)

SESAME's scientific director, Giorgio Paolucci, explaining how the facility works

That's all well and good. But it doesn't address the issue that scientists apply for beamtime (time to work at the facility) via a system of proposals.

In fact, 75% of the time SESAME is in operation, it's running on behalf of proposals.

"Beamtime is based on scientific merit," Paolucci said, "but we're aware there's an educational problem for some of our members. So we do have time for that." 

That's part of the other 25%. It is shared between maintenance work, upgrades to the facility, research by scientists based directly at SESAME… and a little education.    

It wouldn't usually be an issue. But SESAME was originally established as a project for science, peace and diplomacy. However, as things stand, one of SESAME's core members is essentially locked out. 

Workmen at the SESAME synchrotron in Jordan (DW/Z. Abbany)

They're always working on improving the SESAME synchrotron in Jordan

Scientists from wealthy universities are more likely to propose advanced ideas that will advance the reputation of SESAME, too, and they are more likely to get beamtime.

It puts the facility in a bind of its own making. A conflict of interests.

SESAME has to produce world class science to keep attracting world class scientists. It's the only way they can keep the dream alive. These are, after all, early days.

Just the beginning

After another lunch of chicken and chips, we took in a few sights at the facility — the newly-built accommodation for visiting scientists and the surrounding hills — until it was time to leave.

Then we drove back to the hotel in Amman. And it started to dawn on us that this rather intense trip was coming to an end, while the work at and around the SESAME synchrotron was only starting. It would go on, but our own days... hours... were numbered.

Toy machine guns on sale at a market in Bethlehem, West Bank, near the church of the Nativity (DW/Z. Abbany)

Lasting image: Toy guns at a market in Bethlehem, West Bank, near the church of the Nativity

Some of us headed to a pastry store in town and mulled over the week with coffee and baklava.

What did this or that mean, or how would any if it ever make sense?

We skipped dinner, sat in the hotel bar, and continued to talk about the Middle East, science, journalism, and music, until one by one we drifted off — either to bed or the airport. It was hard parting.

Though I couldn't quite put it into words at the time, I knew we had bonded through this communal and confusing experience. And that's why I decided the only way to do the trip, our group and the people we met any justice at all (and I hope I have managed to do so in some small way) was to describe it as simply as it happened.

So that's that. Case closed. For now.

Meanwhile, the door on science and diplomacy in the Middle East remains wide open.

Science journalists on a Middle East field trip, missing one but including DW's Zulfikar Abbany (bottom, right). (DW/Z. Abbany)

One last photo: Science journalists on a Middle East field trip, missing one but including DW's Zulfikar Abbany (bottom, right)

That was the final part in Zulfikar Abbany's Middle East Diary. Go back to the beginning here:

A rocky road to science and diplomacy in the Middle East

Reality checks in Jerusalem

Models of science and society

Warning! You are entering Area A

— 'We Palestinians pray for peace'

— A crawl to university in Palestine