The Middle East’s First Particle Accelerator Turns One Year Old

Here’s a rare bit of good news coming out of the Middle East: last year saw the inauguration of its first and still only synchrotron radiation facility,  a large, complex, and powerful machine that, in layman’s terms, acts as an exceptionally keen microscope. (The largest and most well known example is the Large Hadron Collider operated by CERN, a European research organization.) According to the BBC:

Its name is Sesame – Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East.

The facility hosts a synchrotron, a particle accelerator that acts as a powerful microscope.

Researchers including Iranians, Israelis and Palestinians – who would never normally meet – will now use the machine together.

Sesame is a play on the famous phrase “Open Sesame” and is meant to signal a new era of collaborative science.

By generating intense beams of light, synchrotrons provide exceptionally detailed views of everything from cancerous tissue to ancient parchments to plant diseases.

Sesame’s vast white building, located amid dusty hills some 35km north of the capital Amman, makes a stark contrast to the olive groves around it.

Jordan was chosen because of its relative political stability and the fact that it is the only country in the region with diplomatic relations with all the other members of the initiative: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Palestine, and Turkey.

Nevertheless, as to be expected with trying to start an expensive international collaborative project in a place like the Middle East, there were many obstacles. Again from the BBC:

For most of the past decade, a British physicist, Prof Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, has chaired the project through a series of obstacles.

  • For a start, Israel and Iran do not have diplomatic relations with each other and nor do fellow members Turkey and Cyprus
  • Iran has been unable to pay its share because of international sanctions on banking
  • Two Iranian scientists were killed in what the Iranian government said were assassinations by the Israeli secret service — one was a delegate to the Sesame Council, the other had visited Sesame
  • After a freak snowstorm, the Sesame roof collapsed leaving key components exposed to the elements

Now, standing in the centre of the completed — and tested — main ring of the Sesame synchrotron, Prof Llewellyn Smith admitted that he was “a bit surprised” that the venture had got so far.

“The real problem has been finding the money — the countries in this region have science budgets that you can hardly see with a microscope,” he said.

Indeed, neither multinational collaboration nor particle accelerators come to mind when one thinks of the Middle East, and yet it now hosts a facility that is just one of sixty in the whole world, funded, staffed, and maintained by nations that still distrust, if not outright despise, one another. It was quite an inspiring feat to pull off, and one that is still tenuous — as it passes its one year anniversary without a hitch, will it survive worsening circumstances in the region (including renewed tensions between Israel and Iran).

Imagine how much scientific progress could be made if our species could get past the ignorance, tribalism, pettiness, greediness, and fearfulness that continue to divide us. This project is just a small and unlikely indicator of that. Here’s hoping there will be more to come there and elsewhere.

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How South Koreans Hold Their Corrupt Leaders to Account

South Korea is the only country in the world where all living former leaders (six in all) have either been convicted of corruption offenses, or are being tried or investigated for such crimes, including two former dictators from the 1980s and 1990s. Just last year, one of these leaders was unseated following what may have been the largest peaceful mass demonstration in modern history (and which received support from the legislature and judiciary). Three deceased leaders have also been touched by posthumous corruption scandals or investigations.

Observers once noted that corruption was a “feature rather than a bug” of Korean politics, yet the Korean people — less than two decades into being an full fledged democracy — are doing everything possible to change that. This isn’t to say that these actions are totally free from political self interest and the like — although it is worth noting that the vast majority of Koreans support these actions regardless of their political affiliation.

Korean voters have since elected, Moon Jae In, a refugee from the Korean War who was once jailed for protesting against South Korea’s dictatorship, and was a human rights lawyer before he went into politics. He is so famously “clean” that he avoids having any private or professional meetings with friends to avoid even a hint of corruption. He is subsequently one of the most popular leaders in the world, with over 70 percent approval.

Source: The Economist

Lessons from Bangladesh in Reducing Child Mortality

Bangladesh — the world’s eighth most populous country with 162 million inhabitants — has made tremendous and inspiring strides in reducing child mortality. This is despite the fact that it is a very poor country, with half the GDP per capita of not-particularly-rich neighbors India and Pakistan.

Less than two decades ago, the rate of death for children under five was 54% higher than the global average — now, it is 16% lower than the world average, and less than even its comparatively wealthier neighbors. Child deaths from diarrhea and other enteric diseases (e.g. those from bacterial contamination of food and drink) have declined a whopping 90%; whereas in 1994, 14% of Bangladesh children in surveyed households had suffered some sort of serious enteric illness, by 2014 that number halved to 7%.

Continue reading

The World’s Most Ambitious Megaproject

China is marking its entrance onto the world stage as a great power in an unprecedented way: the $4-6 trillion One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, an extensive network of infrastructure — railways, roads, pipelines, and energy grids — that will link China with 65 countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe. By the time it is completed in 2049, OBOR will span 62% of the world’s population and 40% of its economic output.

china-one-belt-one-road Continue reading

The War that Never Happened

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the relatively under-reported fact that over the summer, China and India — nuclear-armed states with nearly 3 billion people and 4 million troops between them — mutually disengaged from a military standoff along their contested border that was quickly escalating towards war (as happened once before, in 1967). Although the underlying border dispute remains unresolved, it is encouraging to see a cooler-headed precedent prevail (a similar incident in the 1980s was also descalated by both countries).

For all the awful conflicts that have transpired just in our lifetimes, let alone throughout history, it is worth acknowledging and celebrating the conflicts that never happened. Fortunately, this is becoming a trend:

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The World’s Largest Radio Telescope

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Credit: NPR/STR/AFP/Getty Images

Pictured above is the  largest radio telescope in the world, which officially opened this past Sunday and is based Pingtang County in southwest China. The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, is, as the name suggests, 500 meters in diameters, which is 40 percent larger than its predecessor and now runner up, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

FAST will be utilized primarily to observe pulsars, the imploded, highly magnetic cores of old stars that emit intense radiation. Locating and understanding pulsars can yield a lot of important information about the universe. FAST is reportedly sensitive enough to detect radio waves from a pulsar 1,351 light-years away; for a point of reference, a single light-year is 9 trillion kilometers, or 6 trillion miles. So, needless to say, this is an impressive display of technological ingenuity, especially from a country that only relatively recently joined the exclusive (though ever-expanding) club of space exploring nations.

As NPR reports, FAST’s incredible capabilities will be applied to more than just pulsar:

Like radio telescopes in other parts of the world, FAST will study interstellar molecules related to how galaxies evolve. For example, this summer a team using data from the Very Large Array, a collection of radio antennas in the New Mexico desert, picked up what scientists describe as “faint radio emission from atomic hydrogen … in a galaxy nearly 5 billion light-years from Earth.” In the paper describing their findings, the team writes that the “next generation of radio telescopes,” like FAST, will build on their findings about how gases behave in galaxies.

As for FAST’s final use, studying interstellar communication signals, it could be more simply referred to as searching for intelligent extraterrestrial life. “In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar … is approaching us,” Qian told Chinese state media, according to the science news website Phys.org.

[…]

In an interview with the BBC, the deputy project manager for the new Chinese telescope, Peng Bo, said the project was exciting for Chinese scientists. “For many years, we have had to go outside of China to make observations — and now we have the largest telescope,” he told the BBC.

FAST is only the latest demonstration of China’s scientific prowess in astronomy. In addition to being able to launch its own satellites via domestically designed and build rockets, it is only the third country to send a human into orbit and is also third in independently developing and launching a space station (the second of which was recently and successfully launched). China also has plans for another, more permanent space station by 2020; a manned mission to the Moon, which is to be followed by a permanent lunar base; and  a rover expedition of Mars, to name but a few projects.

China’s contributions towards advancing our understanding of the universe is a welcomed one. As I have noted before, we should set aside nationalist sentiments — however much they are motivating such endeavors — and welcome as many different participants in space exploration as possible, if not for higher ideals of human cooperation than out of a sober acceptance that such efforts require all the resources, capital, and knowledge humanity can pool together.

Rats Are Saving Lives in Cambodia

From Colombia to Afghanistan, millions of landmines from conflicts past litter the land and continue to wreak havoc on unsuspecting civilians, particularly children. But one group has hit upon a fascinating solution to this grim problem. I highlighted the program here before, but as NPR reports, it is starting to cover more ground — literally.

A Belgian nonprofit called Apopo began harnessing the rodents’ olfactory prowess 15 years ago. (The group also trains rats to detect tuberculosis). The organization set up a breeding program and training center in Tanzania and began deploying rats to post-conflict countries, first to Mozambique and Angola. Apopo’s Cambodia program began in April, in partnership with the Cambodian Mine Action Center.

“The idea was very strange,” says operations coordinator Theap Bunthourn. “Cambodian people kill rats, don’t like rats. But they’re cost-efficient, they’re easy to transport, they’re easy to train, and they don’t set off the mines because they’re too light.”

That’s an advantage over mine-sniffing dogs, also used in Cambodia. And unlike with dogs, says field supervisor Hulsok Heng, bonding is not an issue. “The rat does not belong to anybody, it can work with anyone, not like [a] dog. If [a] handler is sick, [a] dog cannot work with other people. If the dog does not recognize you, it won’t work with you. But rat, no problem.”

Fifteen rats arrived in Cambodia from Tanzania in late April. Since it’s hotter in Cambodia than in Tanzania, Hulsok says, they’re put to work before the sun comes up. By midday, it’s too hot for them.

With 4-6 million unexploded landmines, bombs, and grenades, this Southeast Asian country could definitely use the help. Neighboring Laos and Vietnam are just as badly affected, so hopefully this field run will prove fruitful enough to expand to those nations as well.

The process of detecting hidden ordnance by rat is pretty fascinating, to say the least.  Continue reading

How Vietnamese View The Vietnam War

As hard as it is to believe, just forty years after millions of Vietnamese and over 58,000 Americans died in a vicious and protracted conflict, most Vietnamese — who are under 40, and thus too young to remember their “American War” — hold a favorable view of the U.S., as Elisabeth Rosen in “How Young Vietnamese View the Vietnam War” The Atlantic.  Continue reading

Nepal’s Citizens Step Up To Heal Nation

An often unreported part of almost any disaster response is the pivotal role played by the victims themselves. Whether directly impacted or not, citizens from all overall the affected country come together to help one another and recovery.

NPR highlights how the beleaguered people of Nepal, long misgoverned and impoverished, have persevered through collaboration and generosity against one of the deadliest disasters in their nation’s history. Continue reading

Nepal Before The Earthquake

In addition to the thousands killed and the many more left injured and homeless, Nepal has irreparably lost much of its rich cultural heritage, from recognized World Heritage sites, to otherwise religious or historically significant buildings.

NPR shares photos from Vermont native Kevin Bubriski, who travelled the country over the span of forty years, compiling a portfolio of its people, customs, and sites. Most date back to the 1980s. Here is a small sampling:

Meanwhile, the New York Times presents a more contemporary comparison of Nepal before and after the earthquake. It show the horrific extent to which the country has been physically damaged, to say nothing of the human cost.

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Though many Nepalis lament the loss these religious and culturally significant sites, this issue is obviously the last thing on their minds, especially as they lack the resources to do anything about it:

…in the meantime, in many places, the detritus of centuries-old temples and palaces has been left unguarded, diminishing chances to eventually rebuild one of the world’s largest clusters of cultural heritage sites. Pedestrians, possibly for sentimental value, are walking away with bricks from the 19th-century Dharahara Tower, which crashed to the earth on Saturday, trapping at least 40 people inside.

On Monday, after a citizen called an official in Nepal’s department of archaeology to report having thwarted an attempt to steal a bronze bell from the roof of a temple here in the capital, the authorities took some first steps to guard against looting. A notice was printed in a local newspaper on Tuesday, warning that anyone taking artifacts will be punished.