A “ring” for peace in the Middle East. An interview with Giorgio Paolucci
Giorgio Paolucci is Scientific Director at SESAME-Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, the large centre of excellence for multidisciplinary research based in Jordan, known as the CERN of the Middle East. This third-generation synchrotron-light international infrastructure is an excellent example of science diplomacy, i.e. the use of scientific and technological collaborations to foster dialogue and peace between countries in the Middle East. The facility operates under the auspices of UNESCO and involves eight countries: Jordan, Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Palestinian National Authority and Pakistan.
Professor Paolucci, in 2017 the SESAME infrastructure opened its doors to researchers. What did that moment mean?
The opening of SESAME in May 2017 was the realization of a dream that many had considered impossible to fulfil. A dream that began in the late 1980s with an international group of scientists, including the Italian physicist Sergio Fubini, who thought they could promote scientific research and peace in the Middle East through the creation of an international research centre of excellence. The initial idea was to build a particle accelerator modelled on CERN in Geneva, then it was decided to develop a third-generation synchrotron-light infrastructure for the study of materials. In this way, in fact, we would have welcomed and encouraged dialogue not only between physicists, but also between researchers in different disciplines, such as chemistry, biology, archaeology and conservation of cultural heritage. However, our organizational model is entirely inspired by that of CERN.
What is this scientific infrastructure?
SESAME is a third-generation synchrotron-light infrastructure which we can think of as a powerful “bulb”, able to illuminate all the details of matter, starting with isolated atoms. In the infrastructure, electrons are accelerated to speeds close to the speed of light in a 133 m circumference ring, and their acceleration produces powerful light sources in a spectrum ranging from infrared to X-rays. Synchrotron light has unique characteristics and allows researchers to carry out studies in every scientific field. A team of Pakistani researchers, for example, has recently used our infrastructure to carry out studies on materials, while a group of researchers from Cyprus is carrying out an analysis of human remains of populations that lived in the Mediterranean area.
What role has Italy played in the construction of SESAME?
As well as being one of the Observer States, Italy has played a central role in the construction of this infrastructure since its beginnings. Our country has made an ad hoc institutional financial contribution to the SESAME project through the Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR), which led to the construction of the four radiofrequency cavities, essential for the functioning of the accelerator, and the innovative X-ray detector that will shortly be installed. Both technologies were developed thanks to the collaboration between Elettra Sincrotrone in Trieste and the National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN). Italy is also contributing to the construction of the guest house for users, which is a necessary facility considering that SESAME is in the open countryside. To date, MIUR has made a contribution of 3.5 million euro to the project.
What are the goals of SESAME?
By promoting cutting-edge research in many scientific fields, we want to give scientists in the Middle East an opportunity for growth and development, from a scientific and economic point of view. An important goal is to reverse the so-called “brain drain” which is particularly acute in this part of the world. But the research conducted in our infrastructure also aims to promote intercultural dialogue and peaceful cooperation between researchers from different countries in the Middle East: using science as a weapon, we want to break down many political and cultural barriers.
Dialogue and exchange of expertise also involves European researchers through the OPEN SESAME project. What is it about?
OPEN SESAME is a project funded by the European Commission through Horizon 2020 with which we are carrying out training and exchange programmes between European and Middle Eastern researchers. INFN and Elettra Sincrotrone in Trieste are partners and the programme includes interesting initiatives that also involve Italian researchers, such as a training school on the use of infrared light in life sciences, which will be held in Amman by researchers from the INFN National Laboratories of Frascati, and a school on the use of synchrotron in materials science to be held in Amman by Elettra Sincrotrone of Trieste. In general, the European Union has contributed a great deal to the project: thanks to a programme supporting renewable-energy efforts, we are planning to build a 6 Megawatt solar power plant, which will make SESAME the world’s first synchrotron-light laboratory to operate entirely with energy from renewable sources.