Aladdin spoke the magic word "Sesame!" to open doors. Likewise, the SESAME project (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) stands to open doors that have for many years shut off the scientists of different countries from one another. The synchrotron, which is under construction at Al-Balqa’ Applied University near Al-Salt, Jordan, will serve scientists in Israel, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, with other, European, scientists participating as observers.
A synchrotron is a large, ring-shaped pipe in which electrons are accelerated to near-light speeds. As they whiz through the pipe, the electrons emit radiation, such as X rays. In research stations situated around the facility, scientists perform experiments using this radiation. Although the synchrotron is a sort of particle accelerator, such as those used in nuclear physics research, many scientists employ it as a giant microscope that allows them to observe things at the scale of molecules and atoms. SESAME will have five different beam lines, making it valuable for research in nanotechnology, atomic medicine, spectroscopy, atomic and molecular physics, archaeology, environmental science and more.
Structural biologists, for instance, rely on synchrotrons to unravel the three-dimensional structures of proteins - an essential step in understanding how they work as well as in creating new and better drugs. To solve a protein’s three-dimensional structure, scientists crystallize the protein and then bombard it with strong X-ray radiation. As the rays bounce off the crystal, they create a pattern that, after analysis, yields the structure of the protein molecule.
With a capacity of 2.5 GeV (2.5 billion electron volts) and an accelerator ring circumference of 125 meters, the synchrotron is mid-sized - smaller than the three giant synchrotrons in the U.S., Japan and France - but it will have boosters to up that capacity if needed
The idea of a Middle Eastern synchrotron was first suggested by Prof. Herman Winick of the Stanford Linear Accelerator in Palo Alto, California. Winick recently received the New York Academy of Sciences Heinz R. Pagels Human Rights Award, in part for his work on SESAME. A number of Israeli scientists, including the Weizmann Institute’s Profs. Irit Sagi and Joel Sussman of the Structural Biology Department, have been actively involved in the project. Instead of flying five hours to Grenoble each time he or one of his colleagues wants to carry out an experiment, says Sussman, "I thought it would be good, when possible, to drive a few hours and be able to return home that evening or the next day."
The final green light for the project came in 1997, with the decision to close down the BESSY-1 accelerator in Germany. Rather than junk the old accelerator, it was agreed to fix it, upgrading the facility to meet the demands of modern, cutting-edge science; and thus the German government donated it to the Middle East project. Jordan was chosen as a "good place in the middle," and construction commenced in 1998. If all goes well, SESAME will begin operating in 2009.
Just as scientific cooperation between Germany and Israel in the 1960s helped pave the way to full political and economic ties, those involved in SESAME hope that their example can spur other types of regional cooperation. Already, the project is an exemplary model of cross-cultural participation. For instance, the synchrotron’s Italian technical director, Dr. Gaetano Vignola, works with a skilled team of Jordanians, Palestinians, Iranians, Moroccans and Turks. The head of the SESAME council is Prof. Herwig Schopper from Switzerland, and the scientific director, Prof. Khaled Toukan, is also Jordan’s Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research. The Weizmann Institute’s Prof. Sagi is a member of the project’s international steering committee.
Participation in workshops has already led to the creation of a regional scientific network and an exchange program for students and young scientists that exposes promising Arab researchers to global science. Israel’s participation and investment in the project are seen in a positive light by the other partners. Chaim Weizmann, the first President of the State of Israel and of the Weizmann Institute, had a vision over 50 years ago that science could play an important role in bringing peace to the region. SESAME may help to prove him right.
Prof. Irit Sagi's research is supported by the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly; the Joseph and Ceil Mazer Center for Structural Biology; the Avron-Wilstaetter Minerva Center; the Laub Fund for Oncogene Research; Verband der Chemischen Industrie; and the Cymerman-Jakubskind Prize. Prof. Sagi is the incumbent of the Maurizio Pontecorvo Professorial Chair.
Prof. Joel Sussman's research is supported by the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly; the Joseph and Ceil Mazer Center for Structural Biology; the Divadol Foundation; the Jean and Jula Goldwurm Memorial Foundation; the Kalman and Ida Wolens Foundation; the Wolfson Family Charitable Trust; the Bruce and Rosalie N. Rosen Family Foundation; and the Estate of Sally Schnitzer, New York, NY. Prof. Sussman is the incumbent of the Morton and Gladys Pickman Professorial Chair in Structural Biology.