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The SESAME laboratory: celebrating the power of light 

Rolf Heuer on the project to build a synchrotron light source in the Middle East


This year is UNESCO’s International Year of Light, and it’s a very important one for a project that’s close to my heart. UNESCO’s theme this year is extremely broad, giving us the opportunity to celebrate subjects ranging from the development of LED lighting, honoured last year by the award of the Nobel Prize in physics, to projects at CERN that will allow us to increase the brightness of the beams in our flagship Large Hadron Collider, LHC, and thereby enhance its capacity to bring us new insights into the inner workings of the universe we live in.

But the project that I want to talk about here is SESAME, which stands for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, and is one of the most significant new scientific infrastructures being built in the world right now. As a synchrotron light source, SESAME will be a world-class particle-accelerator-based facility for applied research that covers the full spectrum from protein crystallography to understand the structure of viruses to solid-state physics to improve our computers.

My story begins over 60 years ago, not in the Middle East, but in Europe, when a group of visionary scientists and diplomats put forward the ideal of a European laboratory, not only as a centre of scientific excellence, but also as catalyst for peace in a continent emerging from the ashes of war. It was at the 1949 European Cultural Conference in Lausanne that this idea was first mooted. By 1951, the project had been adopted by UNESCO, which steered the fledgling laboratory into existence, and oversaw the establishment of the CERN Convention in 1953. On 29 September 1954, when a majority of CERN’s 12 founder members had ratified the Convention, CERN emerged from under the wings of UNESCO as a fully-fledged intergovernmental scientific organisation in its own right, and the laboratory took its place in the international city of Geneva, already host to several intergovernmental organisations.

CERN’s pioneers instilled the laboratory with two bold ambitions: to create a European centre for scientific excellence, and a place where the nations of Europe could work peacefully together after a period of conflict. A place where scientists from around the world could come together to advance the frontiers of knowledge. Last year, we celebrated our 60th anniversary. Both of those ambitions have been amply fulfilled, and we remain true to those ideals. CERN is a world leader in its field of research, and people of over 100 nationalities rub shoulders here every day. CERN shows what can be achieved when people cast aside their differences to pursue a common goal.

Today the CERN story may be about to repeat itself. For many years now, a new breed of visionary scientists and diplomats have been working towards the establishment of a regional laboratory for the Middle East. It all began in 1995 at a historical meeting organized by CERN theoretical physicist Sergio Fubini and held under the shade of a Bedouin tent on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. It was there that representatives of Arab nations and Israel first took an official stand in support of Middle East scientific cooperation. Two decades later, their dream is taking physical shape in the form of SESAME, currently under construction near Amman in Jordan. Like CERN, SESAME was quickly adopted by UNESCO, and like CERN, SESAME became an intergovernmental organization in its own right once sufficient of its founder members had ratified its Convention. Today, SESAME’s members are Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, and Turkey. Construction is well advanced, and research is due to commence in 2016. At SESAME, you are equally likely to run into an Iranian as an Israeli, a Cypriot, a Turk or a Palestinian, all pursuing the common dream of scientific excellence and peace among neighbours.

SESAME is close to my heart not only because of the historical parallels with CERN and the hope it promises for scientific excellence and for peace, but also because CERN today has a very tangible stake in SESAME’s success. With financial support from the European Commission, we are overseeing the construction of the SESAME main accelerator ring, the backbone of the facility. Later this year, all the components will be delivered to SESAME, in time to allow commissioning to begin in 2016 by scientists from across the region working to make the world a better place. What greater celebration of the power of light could one possibly hope for?


This piece was originally published as part of a series of contributions by Rolf Heuer on the Huffington Post