SESAME sheds light on Mideast science and politics

SESAME scientific director Giorgio Paolucci points out one of the magnetic devices used to accelerate electrons around the synchrotron’s ring at the facility in Jordan. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

GeekWire’s Alan Boyle reports on a $90 million science project with a diplomatic twist in Jordan, one of the stops on this summer’s Middle East science tour. 

ALLAN, Jordan — For Israeli researchers, SESAME could open up a path for finding out exactly what the frankincense mentioned in the Bible was made of.

For Arab researchers, SESAME could reveal how the awe-inspiring structures built thousands of years ago at Jordan’s Petra archaeological site were decorated.

And what’s nearly as awesome as the potential discoveries is the fact that Israelis and Arabs are working together at SESAME to make them.

So what is SESAME?

On the literal level, it’s an acronym for “Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East.” That reflects the scientific purpose of the facility in Allan, about an hour’s drive from Amman, Jordan’s capital.

Researchers use the 436-foot-round synchrotron ring to whip up electrons and send them speeding through a magnetic obstacle course that generates brilliant flashes of light. When those light beams hit the atoms in samples of material — including bits of frankincense from the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, or rock carvings borrowed from Petra — they can reveal their chemical composition in stunning detail.

“Basically, a synchrotron is a really, really big light bulb,” said Tel Aviv University biophysicist Roy Beck-Barkai, who represents Israel on SESAME’s governing council.

But there’s another level on which to see SESAME.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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