September 17, 2016
As some Iranian scientists worked on nuclear projects in recent years, others were given a more surprising job – co-operating with Israeli counterparts.
Physicists from the two countries have been working together to set up a particle accelerator in Jordan that will enable researchers to closely analyse all sorts of matter, from archeological artefacts to single atoms.
The accelerator will be ready for some initial experiments in two months. It will then be tweaked ahead of its opening to many more academics from across the Middle East next year.
Years in the making and overseen by scientists whose countries are at loggerheads, Israeli chemistry professor Noam Adir said the fact the project was coming to fruition was “something of a miracle”.
He revealed: “Up to now there has been no problem meeting Iranians when representatives of both countries are present.”
Israel and Iran are not the only surprising collaborators. Pakistan, another key player, officially refuses to recognise Israel but co-operates happily on this project, as do Palestinian scientists. And while Turkey and Cyprus are in conflict, their physicists are working together on the accelerator.
Notably, this is not an under-the-radar initiative. “We are an inter-governmental organisation,” said Giorgio Paolucci, the scientific director of the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications, known for short as the Sesame accelerator.
Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey are all pouring money into the project, and have representatives on the Sesame council, which meets twice a year.
Dr Paolucci said that there had been “no problems” between representatives from the different countries, adding that at times it felt like a “kind of dream world”. Dr Adir said it was “almost a parallel universe.”
This calm environment is even more unexpected in view of the fact that two Iranians involved in the project, quantum physicist Masoud Alimohammadi and nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, were assassinated in 2010 and Iran blamed their deaths on Mossad.
The team behind Sesame insisted that the collaboration would not stop once the accelerator starts operating, but rather the ties would become closer. “Scientists will be using it every day, and they will be performing experiments simultaneously,” said Dr Paolucci, an Italian who now lives in Jordan. “They will prepare their experiments and then take a walk around and meet each other.”
Dr Adir said he saw the collaboration as the centrepiece of the project. He noted that while the accelerator was not the most advanced of its kind, “this is about the meeting of minds it will facilitate”.
Scientists from around the world have already agreed to meet up and discuss future projects, with the next conference due in December.
So what does Sesame actually do? In Dr Paolucci’s words: “It’s a big light bulb that produces a different kind of light which you can’t reproduce through other means, and hence you can study the intimate structures of substances.”
The “bulb” is actually a high-intensity light beam produced when particles travel very fast. Called “synchrotron radiation”, the method has even been used to examine the inside of a dinosaur egg without harming it.
Until now, there has been no accelerator of this kind in the Middle East, and its establishment will benefit many fields, including archaeology.
Sesame will help researchers study the ink on manuscripts, for example, enabling a better understanding of where and when they were written.
Dr Adir predicted that archaeologists would use the technology “more and more. One is able to get information without cutting an object or taking even the smallest bit of material off for testing.”