APS News

March 2017 (Volume 26, Number 3)

International Firsts in Physics

By Rachel Gaal


APS April Meeting 2017 — After 14 years of slingshotting electrons around its ring of magnets, the BESSY-1 accelerator was due for an upgrade. The synchrotron radiation source, once housed at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB), was set to be decommissioned at the end of 1999, in favor of its successor, BESSY-2. While it seemed that BESSY-1 was headed for the junkyard, Germany had other plans — to donate it to a growing effort outside of Europe, a joint synchrotron radiation facility that would be built somewhere in the Middle East. Worth $60 million at the time, this donation was a key step forward to foster a radical type of scientific collaboration in the Middle East.

Now known as SESAME, the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, the third-generation light source is housed in Allan, Jordan, with the new and improved BESSY-1 serving as the injector for the main ring. SESAME recently reached another milestone in mid-January 2017, successfully circulating its first beam.

AIMS graduates
Photo: AIMS

Young students at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences

"SESAME started in 1997, and the facility is finally completed," Herman Winick of SLAC and member of SESAME’s Scientific Advisory Committee announced at the APS April Meeting 2017. "The first beams are finally going around the 2.5 GeV storage ring, which is the first in the Middle East."

Modeled after the cooperative framework of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the SESAME synchrotron is supported by nine members: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, and Turkey. Before becoming its own independent intergovernmental organization in 2004, it was established under the auspices of UNESCO.

"The 2.5 GeV machine is small, at 133 meters in circumference," Winick continued. "But it can support 28 simultaneously operating beamlines, and it's been gratifying to see Middle East engineers working on this … countries that might not normally recognize each other want to train their students here and do research. [They are] discovering they can do world-class research at home."

This type of scientific collaboration is designed to combat the notorious "brain drain" in developing countries, where many talented scientists are recruited outside of their home country to conduct research — rarely returning due to lack of state-of-the-art facilities and research opportunities.

Many African countries, including more developed areas such as South Africa, fall victim to the drain. Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and founder of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS South Africa), described his experience with this quandary at the APS April Meeting 2017:

"Tens of thousands of undergrads graduate from African countries, but they don't have the quality of education to allow them to do everything … and there is always encouragement for [graduates] to come to the U.S. or the U.K., but they never come back. We want to change that."

Focused on training postgraduate students across Africa, AIMS South Africa has been in operation since 2003, and has expanded its original center in South Africa to operate in Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania, and Rwanda. The centers feature 24/7 learning environments for the students, with resident tutors, libraries, and computer facilities at their fingertips. Turok called it the "epitome of a university."

"No matter the scientific areas our students go into, we designed a center that would allow them to go into any area of science and technology," Turok said. "The students way exceeded our expectations [when we started]. We had students that came out of the Congo — these sophisticated, young intellectuals — that took full advantage of our system."

In 2008, Turok was awarded the TED prize for his Next Einstein Initiative: a push to harness the creativity and knowledge that African students needed, who were "starved of opportunity" and in need of a better future.

"We ran for five years ... and then I gave a TED talk that made me publicly commit to finding the next ‘African Einstein.’ And to do so, I want[ed] to establish 15 AIMS centers in Africa," explained Turok. "We are slowly getting there ... each [center] has between 50-100 students, with postgraduate and Ph.D. students. We get over 4,000 applications per year … our progress is truly exciting."

So far, 70 percent of graduated students have stayed local — working, teaching, or pursuing advanced degrees in African countries. New science initiatives in Africa, such as the Square Kilometer Array and the Quantum Leap Africa Research Centre, will keep well-trained students and graduates in their native countries for research and collaborative opportunities.

Another international pursuit was announced at the APS April Meeting 2017 — two efforts to detect dark matter, at new underground labs in Africa and South Korea. Zeblon Z. Vilakazi of the University of the Witwatersrand is looking to establish a Southern African Underground Laboratory, one of few in the southern hemisphere.

"We propose to extend Mponeng Gold Mine, a sister gold mine to TauTona, down to 4500 meters, which would be the deepest mine in the world," Vilakazi announced. "The deeper underground … provides [more] natural shielding that attenuates all the cosmogenic background.

Partners in Germany and France have already voiced their support, including South African institutions of Stellenbosch University, University of Western Cape, University of Cape Town, Saldanha Military Academy, EARTH Foundation, iThemba LABS, and the University of Witwatersrand.

Yeongduk Kim of the Institute for Basic Science (IBS) in South Korea is in charge of the new underground lab under construction in an active iron mine there. "The Center for Underground Physics (CUP), which was approved by IBS in 2013, [will be] a new world-class underground in terms of quality ... we wanted to make final detectors from the very raw materials in the center, by growing the crystals underground. We are [also] fabricating the sensors to work at a temperature lower than 1 kelvin."

A smaller laboratory, currently located in an underground power plant, will be replaced in 2019. There, CUP hopes to confirm the annual modulation signal from dark matter particles that the DAMA collaboration detected over 20 years ago. Kim said that the COSINE-100 project is the first serious experiment to use the same kind of sodium iodide crystals as the DAMA collaboration to compare and "double check" their results in 2017.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Rachel Gaal
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik