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The Rolex award

December 4, 2008

This year Professor Talal Akasheh has received the prestigious Rolex award for his work on documentation and preservation of the various monuments of Petra. Professor Akasheh is a chemist who became interested in Petra when he worked at Yarmouk University. He later moved to the Hashemite University, but maintained his interest in cultural heritage and its preservation. There, he established the Queen Rania Institute of Tourism and Heritage.

Anyway, the Rolex awards website details the substantial work and significant contribution the Professor Akasheh made towards sustainable development and management of Petra. Clearly, this work is of significant practical importance to Jordan, and the international recognition of this effort is well deserved. Congratulations to Talal and to Jordan.

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SESAME

November 19, 2008

A few days ago, the German Jordanian University hosted Dr. Herman Winick to talk about the various uses of synchrotron radiation. This came as part of the activities to introduce SESAME as a significant new research tool for Jordan and the region.

Synchrotron radiation is a very high intensity, highly tunable electromagnetic radiation. In the sciences, x-rays are typically produced using special cathode tubes. In most cases, these are sufficient for various analytical purposes, i.e. determination of chemical (by X-ray fluorescence) and crystal structures (by X-ray diffraction) of various materials. However, x-rays produced by cathode tubes are low intensity and can not be tuned to specific frequencies. This places limitation on studying complex crystal structures and intricacies of the distribution of elements within various biological, archaeological and environmental samples. Synchrotron radiation overcomes these limitations and more.

Until Dr. Winick’s talk, I have been somewhat skeptical about what use it would be, as it seemed to me that that generating x-rays using synchrotron radiation was expensive overkill. However, during the talk, it became clear that such radiation offers a whole different level of scientific investigation, which could never be achieved in existing facilities in Jordan. I think that Winick pointing out how many Nobel prizes have been won by scientists through the use of synchrotron radiation brought this point home.

Sesame is a regional project by UNESCO to establish a synchrotron light source in Jordan. Building is underway in ‘Allan near Salt, and the project is expected to be up and running in 2012. This will provide a significant boost to science in Jordan, and I look forward to witnessing it and hopefully being part of it.

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King Solomon’s mines?

November 1, 2008

The interface between religion and science is always fascinating. On the other hand, it is a dangerous mix that deserves much scrutiny. This statement is especially valid with this recent article in Newsweek, with the misleading title “Found? King Solomon’s Mines”. The article is based on this paper authored by Thomas Levy and his co-workers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Some local web sites eagerly picked up the story, with less critical review that the story warrants.
Both the story and the original article try to make the case that the Bible might be a credible source of historical information, largely due to the confluence of other historical texts with it (i.e. Pharonic records from the period of Sheshonq I). The scholarly article simply provides evidence that copper extraction in southern Jordan took place at the time of Sheshonq I (10th century BC), with the assertion that Sheshonq I is the same as Shishaq in the Bible.

Now, it is well established that copper mining and smelting in southern Jordan began during the Chalcolithic period (~3000 BC), and continued into the Roman and Islamic periods (up to and beyond 1000 AD). Thus, the findings reported by Levy and his co-workers falls within the time frame where known copper mining and extraction occurred, and are not particularly surprising. The implication that somehow the scale of extraction increased during the Iron Age is not demonstrated, and no quantification is offered.

More importantly, none of the artifacts found at the site point to Israelite presence at the site. Pottery and other artifacts are clearly either Edomite or Egyptian. Thus, the article title, and it’s closing line “They hope to figure out who actually controlled the copper industry at Khirbat en-Nahas: David and Solomon, or Edomite leaders?” are really catchy but misleading.

It is clear that journalism is largely concerned with excitement and marketing, and so a generous interpretation is that the marketing of Biblical Archaeology benefits both the publication and the researcher, who is interested in keeping funding flowing. On the other hand, Zionists would love to prove that the Israelites had a presence here, even with no facts to back it up. This is a less generous but equally plausible explanation to how this issue is presented.

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The basic sciences award

October 20, 2008

This year, Professor Zuhair Amr won the distinguished researcher award in the field of basic sciences (biology, geology and environmental sciences).Professor Amr is a biologist who works at the Jordan University of Science and Technology. He has an impressive CV, with a large volume of research on Jordanian fauna. I first mentioned his work when I was stung by a scorpion, and a paper which he co-authored helped me learn more about scorpions in Jordan.

Besides scorpions, Professor Amr has worked on butterflies, hyenas, birds, rodents, jungle cat among things. He has also worked on human health issues, such as the problem of head lice

The study and documentation of biodiversity and habitat characteristics is of vital importance to our environment. Many people sense that this biodiversity is being lost as urbanization, hunting, and pesticides are altering our ecosystem and the diversity it once supported.  This work provides a good base towards better management and conservation of our natural environment, and I believe that the judges made an excellent choice in awarding Professor Amr.

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Distinguished research and researchers

October 20, 2008

The ministry of higher education and scientific research has announced the winners of this year’s distinguished research and distinguished researchers awards. While having such awards is an important step in celebrating and rewarding our scientists and researchers, it is unfortunate that none of the media outlets is bothering to explain what the awards are for, specifically. The value of the awards is in publicizing achievements, and not specific names.  Thus, lack of publicity on the achievements diminishes the value.

In this and the next few posts, I will explore some of the achievements of this year’s winners.

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Quarryscapes

October 10, 2008

As I mentioned yesterday, tomorrow I am going to Aswan to attend a workshop. This workshop is related to a project I am involved in titled “Quarryscapes”. The European Union funded Quarryscapes project started in 2005 and is now almost finished. Our meeting in Aswan is the final one of this project.

The project is basically an effort to study and raise awareness about ancient quarries in the eastern Mediterranean area. In this context, we in Jordan studied ancient Bronze aged quarries in the Jafr area, Nabatean quarries in Petra and Roman quarries in Jerash. In the upcoming meeting, I will present some of our work in Jerash.

Most people who are impressed by ancient monuments give little thought to where the stones that were used were brought from. When one thinks about it, it is obvious that the sources of stone are integral components of the archaeological context, and helps to understand more on the story of how the site was built.

The presentation I am planning to present on Jerash includes maps of the most important remaining quarry sites, the geological context, the most interesting features and the threats that these sites face. Unfortunately, there is little awareness about this issue, and for the most part, these sites are unprotected. Jordanian law does not extend protection to these quarries. Protection and proper presentation of these sites will add both depth and texture to the tourists’ experience. Moreover, it is an important component of our heritage that we should strive to bequeath to future generations.

The sites show tool marks, evidence of the techniques used for stone extraction, and unfinished columns. In the case of Jerash, there is a striking landscape as well. Here are some pictures that will help explain what I mean.

See you when I get back.

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Upcoming conferences

October 9, 2008

There are a couple of potentially interesting conferences scheduled over the next couple of weeks. Yarmouk University is organizing a symposium on the peaceful use of nuclear energy (October 14-16). I would like to attend, but I am scheduled to go to a meeting in Aswan next week (more on that later). There are a number of questions that I would like to ask, given the chance. The keynote address to by given by Khaled Toukan should be very informative.

The following week has an international congress on biodiversity scheduled in Aqaba (October 20-23). This will probably be very interesting as well. Loss in biodiversity is rarely given enough play in Jordan, despite it being a significant problem.

Anyway, if anybody attends and would like to give me some highlights, they are most welcome.