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Middle East particle accelerator shows positive power of science – Dr Jean-Pierre Koutchouk

Dr Koutchouk outlined progress with the SESAME synchrotron during an event called 'Building together knowledge-oriented and forward looking EU’, held in Brussels on 31 March. © European Union 2015 – EP
Dr Koutchouk outlined progress with the SESAME synchrotron during an event called 'Building together knowledge-oriented and forward looking EU’, held in Brussels on 31 March. © European Union 2015 – EP

The SESAME synchrotron in Jordan shows that science can make positive things happen among countries in a region which is facing political tensions, according to Dr Jean-Pierre Koutchouk, coordinator of the EU-funded CESSAMag project.

You are leading the work of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to support the SESAME particle accelerator in Jordan. How does a project like SESAME help promote diplomacy in the region?

‘I find it extremely interesting in the sense that in this organisation you find people from countries which presently have major political issues to deal with. And you can see that scientific language, and the ambition to do something together, works because it is a kind of island, I wouldn’t say of peace, but an island of dialogue. 

‘And that demonstrates that something is feasible. Not only what we see on the TV – instability and violence. Something positive can happen when talking a different language.’ 

SESAME is seen as a shining example of science diplomacy. What can we learn from it? 

‘So here I will be talking for myself. When I was asked to have a look into supporting SESAME … my first reaction was, “Well I’m not too sure that this scientific project matches the needs of the local people, of the local scientists.” And then I went there, and I discovered that I was totally ignorant of the reality of these countries. It is not difficult to find very good people to build an advanced accelerator. It is more difficult to find experienced people. It is there that CERN can provide added value (by sharing its experience).

‘A potential problem for SESAME, not for the region, is to keep them, because they are hired and, when sent to other synchrotron light source labs to increase their motivation, experience and so on, they may settle there.

The SESAME synchrotron laboratory in JordanThe SESAME synchrotron is expected to start operations in 2016. Image credit: SESAME.

‘So, in a way, the collaboration between CERN and SESAME is positive because we are not on the same branch of science, we will not take these people. We are not even allowed to by our statute because we are European we cannot hire non-European staff.

‘I can simply observe that all the people that are collaborating with us from SESAME for over two years are still there. And they must stay for several reasons: the project is really taking shape now, it’s interesting, and, in regards to our collaboration, they can interact with the best people of CERN in a very easy way, and so then the recognition comes, and this helps.’ 

So the message is that you need to develop competence by ensuring that projects are interesting enough to keep the people who are working on them? 

‘Yes. The project has to be motivating to keep the people, and it has to be networked with labs. CERN is an example. I am from CERN, but SESAME is also collaborating, for example with SOLEIL (the French light source), and many other labs. They have to be networked in a way that their contribution is acknowledged, and they feel part of the venture.’ 

Scientific language, and the ambition to do something together, works.’

Dr Jean-Pierre Koutchouk, CERN

What kind of science will SESAME be able to do?

‘SESAME is an instrument that will be able to look deep into so many materials, from physics and chemistry to biology and engineering. A fascinating use is for archaeology. It’s pretty interesting because you can do non-destructive analysis - you can study what is the exact composition of a given material, of an eye of a statue, for instance, and then from this composition decide whether it comes from the surrounding or whether there was commerce with far-away countries. And the Middle East is in the middle of the origin of humanity, so it can be an interesting instrument for that. But that is just an example.

‘What they can do with this machine can have a direct impact locally. I mentioned archaeology, but on water resources, the environment, it’s used for lots of different applications. And this is not being ignored (in the region) in the sense that, whilst we care about the machine, there are others caring about the training of the users. They are organising regular meetings with typically 100 people or more, and what is fascinating, in this part of the world, is in these meetings I observe that the percentage of females is higher than what we observe at CERN. So something is happening, something is happening in this region, not only conflicts and violence, which is the usual perception.’

What is your hope for the future, having seen how SESAME has evolved?

‘The hope is that from this centre comes well-produced science that is recognised and useful. Useful globally for recognition, which will stabilise the centre, and locally to show to the members that are making an effort in producing this centre that it pays off, much like CERN did for Europe. Because it can be productive not only in the science, but in the technology, and this is why we (CESSAMag) are so keen on spending a little bit in the countries, while respecting the rules of the EU’s funding programme. And some local companies, who had no former experience, made beautiful products. We took care, but they could demonstrate their competence and this is a side effect which can be very important.’ 

Europe’s support for SESAME

The European Union has teamed up with CERN to help support the construction of SESAME through the EUR 8.5 million CESSAMag project.

The goal of CESSAMag is to deliver to SESAME the powerful magnet system that will bend and focus the particle beams within the accelerator. Under CESSAMag, which will finish next year, the EU funds the material and training costs, while CERN contributes expert human resources.

Both CERN and SESAME were founded through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and they share the goal of developing advanced scientific knowledge while building bridges across nations.

In addition to its support for CESSAMag, the EU has also contributed more than EUR 3 million to SESAME through the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument, and by supporting the SESAME networking, computing and data handling systems.

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