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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Hero Highlights: Project Prakash

Of the world’s 1.3 million blind children, India is home to the world’s largest population, with estimates ranging from 200,000 to 700,000. As in many developing countries, a child born blind faces enormous social and economic hurdles: in addition to being stigmatized and marginalized in their communities, the vast majority of blind children are unable to get an education or a job. Many face physical and sexual abuses. At least half do not survive to adulthood.

In addition to regressive social attitudes, a lack of medical care access, and little to no disability-friendly institutions and infrastructure, the problem is made worse by the pervasive idea that, once a child reaches seven or eight years of age, their blindness is irreversible and untreatable. Yet the prevailing cause — congenital cataracts — is an otherwise easily treatable condition in the developed world. Imagine a lifetime of being disadvantaged and ostracized for something beyond your control and which could easily be addressed if there was the will and money. It is a disease of poverty.

Enter Project Prakash, founded in 2002 by Dr. Pawan Sinha, an Indian-born graduate of MIT. Named after the Sanskrit word for “Light”, he started the organization after a trip to rural India, where he witnessed the first hand the scale and severity of child blindness. After obtaining a grant from the U.S. National Eye Institute, he assembled team of about 20 clinicians, scientists, and outreach personnel to provide cataract surgery for as little as $300 per patient (though those too poor to pay get it for free). He tells the story in great detail Scientific American (sorry for the paywall.) Continue reading

Volunteer Rescuers of Migrants Acquitted of Criminal Charges

The sheer humanity of people in the face of suffering and injustice will never cease to captivate and inspire me. A couple of days ago, five individuals — three Spaniards and two Danes — were acquitted of charges in Greece of facilitating illegal immigration into they country when they volunteered to save migrants during the height of the crisis last year. According to the New York Times:

“This is a strong signal to other NGOs and just people working for humanity,” said one of the Danish defendants, Salam Aldeen, the founder of Team Humanity, speaking by telephone after the verdict. “Saving lives is not a crime, rescuing people is not a crime.”

Mr. Aldeen said he was now eager to return home after nearly two years in Greece — his pretrial conditions included being barred from leaving the country. He continued working as a rescuer during that time, he said.

“I lost everything but I did not lose my humanity,” he said.

Along with Mr. Aldeen and another Dane, Mohammed el-Abassi, who also worked for Team Humanity, three Spanish firefighters who volunteered for the Spanish group Proem-Aid faced as many as 15 years in prison.

The five were arrested on Jan. 14, 2016, just a few hours after successfully rescuing 51 migrants, according to Mr. Aldeen, the owner of the boat on which the five were working.

Not long after their operation, the men said, they had alerted the Greek authorities to another migrant boat in trouble, without approaching it. They were arrested soon after. “We didn’t even see the boat,” Mr. Aldeen had contended.

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Human Rights in Everyday Language

The following chart from Our World in Data tracks the frequency of the phrases ‘civil rights’, ‘women’s rights’, ‘children’s rights’, ‘gay rights’ and ‘animal rights’ in English-language books from 1900 to 2008. 

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We take for granted that these words and ideas exist, but for the vast majority of human history, the very notion of human rights, especially for children and women, let alone rights for animals — was almost completely alien to virtually every culture. That these words have become so common in our books, media, and everyday language is a huge sign of progress in itself — even if we have a very long way to go.

 

Ringing in the New Year With Gratitude and Purpose

I know 2017 was a rough year for many people across the world. That makes me all the more grateful that it was overall kind to me. I got engaged to the love of my life, finally started law school (after nearly seven years talking about it), and got to travel to almost a dozen new places. I made a lot of great news friends while fortunately still remaining with the same tried but true ones. I continued struggling with my physical and mental health, but made a lot of progress on those fronts, too (due in no small part, as always, to my incredible support network).

So, on balance, I could not have asked for a better year. Things do really seem to be getting better with time, and I am really thankful for that. The cosmic dice were rolled in my favor, and for no other reason than raw luck, I find myself in such incredibly good circumstances. I hope that in the coming years, I can give back accordingly, both through and beyond my legal career. I hope for the best for everyone else and promise to do whatever I can to be there and help out, even if I am not the most available or reliable. (Something I am continuing to work on, promise!).

Finally, if it is any consolation, for all the horrible things still going on in the world, each passing year of 21st century is seeing a consistent improvement in everything from poverty reduction to increases in longevity. Progress is somehow still marching on, and there is a good chance that there will be many great things ahead on the horizon, however many bad things may still be there for us to resolve. Let’s keep the moral arc going in whatever way we can.

Living Longer and More Prosperously

Never before have so many humans enjoyed longer and healthier lives. Across the world, even in some of the poorest countries, deaths from most infectious diseases are declining precipitously, while every region is seeing increased longevity. The data are resoundingly clear:

25508081_10159789044430472_6163396239419175882_n Continue reading

The Former Italian Fascist Who Teamed Up With a Franco-Era Spanish Diplomat to Save Thousands of Jews During WWII

Giorgio Perlasca (pictured left, some time before his death in 1992) was an Italian businessman and ex-fascist who cleverly used international law and bold impersonations to save thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

Perlasca was once a committed fascist who had fought for Italy in its brutal war against Ethiopia, as well as for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. By the start of the Second World War, however, he had grown disillusioned with fascism, especially following Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany and the implementation of Italian racial laws in 1938.

While serving as an Italian delegate in Hungary (another Nazi ally), his country had surrendered to the Allies, forcing citizens to choose between remaining loyal to the fascists or joining the Allied cause; at great personal risk, Perlasca chose the latter, and he was subsequently arrested by Hungarian authorities.

Using a medical pass that allowed him to travel in the country, he fled to the Spanish Embassy in Budapest, where he requested political status. Fortunately, his service to the victorious Spanish Nationalists endeared them to his request, and he was subsequently given protection, since Spain was neutral. Perlasca then took full advantage of his diplomatic cover to save people of a completely different faith and nationality.

Lucky for him, Angel Sanz Briz (pictured right, in 1969) was stationed there with the same idea in mind.

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The End of Smallpox

smallpox

Yesterday, December 9th, came and went like any other day. But on that day in 1979, one of the most groundbreaking endeavors in human history was accomplished: a group of eminent scientists commissioned by the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) certified the global eradication of smallpox, the only human disease thus far to have been completely eliminated from nature. The WHO officially confirmed and announced this momentous achievement a few moments later:

Having considered the development and results of the global program on smallpox eradication initiated by WHO in 1958 and intensified since 1967 … Declares solemnly that the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was a most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest time, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake and which only a decade ago was rampant in Africa, Asia and South America.

Less than a decade before, the end of smallpox would have seemed the remotest possibility. As recently as 1967, the WHO had estimated that 15 million people contracted the disease, and that two million had died that year alone — the average number of annual deaths since the turn of the century. Continue reading

The Greek Prelate Who Stood Up to the Nazis and Saved Thousands

Archbishop Damaskinos of Greece

Wikimedia Commons

Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou was the leader of the Orthodox Church in Greece during the Second World War, credited with saving the lives of thousands of Greek Jews. His actions were characteristic of the Greek resistance, which was among the fiercest and most stubborn in Europe; indeed, the Greeks are credited with inflicting the first major loss to Axis forces, when they turned back a numerically superior Italian invasion, which ultimately required Germany to divert precious manpower to overpower them.

Although conquered, Greeks like Damaskinos continued to make life difficult for the occupiers. He frequently clashed with both the collaborationist government and Nazi officials, often against repeated threats to this life. In 1943, when the Germans began rounding up and deporting Greek Jews, Damaskinos officially protested in a manner unique in Europe: he published a letter condemning the Nazis and calling on his people to protect their Jewish neighbors. Part of it read:

In our national consciousness, all the children of Mother Greece are an inseparable unity: they are equal members of the national body irrespective of religion… Our holy religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion, as it is stated: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek’ and thus condemns any attempt to discriminate or create racial or religious differences. Our common fate both in days of glory and in periods of national misfortune forged inseparable bonds between all Greek citizens, without exemption, irrespective of race…

Today we are… deeply concerned with the fate of 60,000 of our fellow citizens who are Jews… we have lived together in both slavery and freedom, and we have come to appreciate their feelings, their brotherly attitude, their economic activity, and most important, their indefectible patriotism…”

The local SS commander, Jürgen Stroop — a nasty character who would be executed for war crimes after the war — threatened to execute the Archbishop if he published the letter. Yet not only did Damaskinos proceed with publishing the letter, but he dared to reply sarcastically:

According to the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church, our prelates are hanged, not shot. Please respect our traditions!

This is in reference to past Greek Orthodox leaders and martyrs being lynched historically. Miraculously, Stroop never followed up on his threat, perhaps because he was intimidated by the man’s lack of fear, or knew of his influence and esteem among an already riotous populace.

In addition to this bold and high profile act of resistance, Damaskinos ordered churches to distribute Christian baptismal certificates to Jews fleeing the Nazis, thus saving thousands of Jews.

For these actions, Damaskinos is named among the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Sources: RaoulWallenberg.net;  www.db.yadvashem.org

The Little-Known Russian Soldier Who Saved the World

stanislaw-jewgrafowitsch-petrow-2016Despite helping the world avert a nuclear holocaust over forty years ago, Stanislav Petrov is still little known even in his native Russia, let alone in the United States, which he saved from mistaken nuclear retaliation.

In fact, he died this past May at age 77 in his home near Moscow with little fanfare or media attention; only through the efforts of an intrepid German activist, who sought to contact him this month to wish him a happy birthday, did this fact make it to major media outlets.

USA Today recounts the fateful night that the fate of the world rested on the shoulders of a Soviet lieutenant colonel:

Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer monitoring an early warning system from a bunker outside Moscow on Sept. 26, 1983, when the radar screen suddenly appeared to depict a missile inbound from the United States.

“All my subordinates were confused, so I started shouting orders at them to avoid panic,” Petrov told the Russian news agency RT in 2010. “I knew my decision would have a lot of consequences.”

The alert siren wailed. A message on the bunker’s main screen reported that four more missiles had been launched, he said. Petrov had 15 minutes to determine whether the threat was real and report to his commanders.

“My cozy armchair felt like a red-hot frying pan and my legs went limp,” he told RT. “I felt like I couldn’t even stand up. That’s how nervous I was.”

Even on a good day in U.S.-Soviet relations, such an incident would have been believable. But to top it off, this was a period of increased tensions, as less than a month before, the Russians had shot down a Korean civilian airline that had accidentally drifted into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 passengers, including a U.S. congressman. Both sides had subsequently exchanged warnings and threats, so what Petrov and his troops saw on the radar was perfectly believable.

It would also need to be addressed quickly, as the presumed missiles would strike the country in just twenty minutes. NPR recounts how Petrov somehow managed to keep a cool head and get a handle on the situation:

“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike,” Petrov told the BBC. “But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”

Petrov sensed something wasn’t adding up.

He had been trained to expect an all-out nuclear assault from the U.S., so it seemed strange that the satellite system was detecting only a few missiles being launched. And the system itself was fairly new. He didn’t completely trust it.

After several nerve-jangling minutes, Petrov didn’t send the computer warning to his superiors. He checked to see if there had been a computer malfunction.

He had guessed correctly.

“Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened,” he said in 2013. “If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.”

Imagine being tasked with defending your country and having only a split second to make the call. Strategically, he would have been within his right to alert his superiors so they could retaliate accordingly, as per both Soviet and U.S. protocols. Instead, he relied on his cool reasoning and training to make the right call, despite the obvious risks.

It was later revealed that the false positive was due to Russian satellites mistaking sunlight reflecting off of clouds for nuclear missiles; the simplicity of such an error makes one wonder how more such near-misses haven’t happened — provided they do not remained classified or went unreported.

Indeed, the incident remained under wraps for fifteen years, until a Russian official mentioned the incident well after the fall of the USSR, and a German magazine picked up the story, making Petrov a minor celebrity.

In all the time before the story emerged, Petrov’s heroism was officially neither rewarded nor even acknowledged; in fact, he was formally reprimanded for “failing to provide property paperwork”, which was no doubt due to his superior’s embarrassment of such a potentially catastrophic error.

In 2013, Petrov was awarded the Dresden International Peace Prize, and 2014 saw the release of The Man Who Saved the World, a Danish documentary about the incident. Otherwise, Petrov remained little known until his belatedly-reported death attracted some attention from Western and Russian media — a seemingly surprising fate for a man who saved the world, but perhaps an indication of how much we take nuclear security for granted, given how many other potentially-disastrous incidents, errors, and accidents have occurred or been narrowly averted (and those are just the ones we know about).

While it is sad that a man who saved the world should die largely-forgotten, perhaps it is a fitting death for someone as evidently humble and magnanimous as Petrov was. He once told RT in 2010:

At first when people started telling me that these TV reports had started calling me a hero, I was surprised. I never thought of myself as one. After all, I was literally just doing my job.

Something tells me he was more than happy to have simply saved the world and live into old age, with or without any credit or fanfare. It is a good thing there was someone like Petrov around that night, and hopefully there are more people like him in these delicate and potentially earth-shattering positions.

(As it happens, Stanislav Petrov is not the only Russian soldier to have helped the world avert nuclear disaster during a tense time — look up the story of Vasili Arkhipov, another soft-spoken and humble officer who made the correct call not to launch a nuclear strike that could very well have initiated all-out war.)