ALBA: Light Against War

about how international team of scientists from Сatalonia support Ukraine

In June 2022 Dr. Igors Šics and Dr. Andriy Nosych invited Ukrainians to the ALBA synchrotron (Cerdañola del Vallès, Catalonia), whom they had previously met only at rallies against the war. The initiator of the Igors Šics excursion in his ordinary life is a scientist working in Experiments Division of ALBA Synchrotron facility. Initially started as a research scientist at one of 10 laboratories which uses Х-rays produced by the electron accelerator for research in biology, chemistry, material science and many other fields. Today he has shifted his focus from the material research to the technical side of synchrotron science. Development of diagnostic instrumentation for the new synchrotron beamlines as well as metrology of optical systems for Х-ray applications has become his field of activity. Some of the results from research and instrumentation activities have been disseminated in more than fifty publications as well as conferences and all types of scientific meetings.

Andriy Nosych is a research scientist from Kharkiv, Ukraine. He is an accelerator diagnostics engineer, responsible in ALBA for beam instrumentation, beam diagnostics, experimental & instrumentational data analysis, and development of data analysis software for his division. His relevant work experience to date includes 5 years of PhD work in computational mathematics, and 10+ years in beam instrumentation and diagnostics of different accelerator facilities, including the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Ukrainian guests asked a lot of questions, especially the children who are interested in science. Adults paid special attention to how ALBA scientists help Ukraine — boxes for collecting aid are installed in the lobby, posters are pasted up.

Lyubava Malysheva: Tell us about ALBA.

Igors Šics: “Font de llum de sincrotró ALBA” (in catalan language) employs about 260 scientists. ALBA is a third-generation accelerator, construction began in 2006, routine work began in 2011, and produces Х-rays. Scientific staff working at ALBA are organized in several “Divisions”, two of which directly deal with the main purpose of the facility. A group dedicated to the development and “correct” functioning of the electron accelerator producing Х-ray beams and a group that uses these Х-ray beams to carry out scientific experiments, which is the main purpose of the whole facility.

Andriy Nosych: The length of the ring is 300 meters. Beams of electrons, having quite tangible dimensions and thickness — approximately like a human hair — are fired from a special electron gun and fall into an annular vacuum tube. In this ring, the beams are controlled (turned and focused) by powerful magnets, and accelerated by resonating cells with an electric field. The equipment is calibrated to within microns, geodetic control is carried out, and even a special foundation does not guarantee that the ring is not deformed by time and soil movements. The ring is protected from the vibrations of the outside world, from temperature changes, and from dust.

Malysheva: How many laboratories are there in total?

Šics: 10 laboratories are in operation, three are under construction, potentially about 30 laboratories can be made. The construction of each new laboratory takes about 2 years. One of the working laboratories uses IR radiation — they study biological objects, following vibrations (and other types of movements) of functional groups, e.g. methyl, hydroxyl, etc. A chemical compound, if it is not frozen, moves and absorbs vibrations of a specific frequency. This is how the group is recognized for which this absorption of the spectrum is typical.

Nosych: So in this particular beamline (this is how small laboratories connected to the accelerator are called) irradiating material with infrared beam it is possible to find out its molecular structure. Other beamlines use Х-ray beams for similar but not the same purpose, each beamline researching and revealing different aspects of the material structure and how it can be used for the advancement of progress in technology, medicine, and other fields. Apart from those “applied” aspects of research, there is also a part that is dedicated to the advancement of a fundamental understanding and knowledge regarding the world and materials building it, around us. This is what often is referred to as “fundamental science” and really is the base without which no “applied” science fields could really exist.

Malysheva: Is it an expensive project?

Šics: Initial budget for construction of the accelerator and first seven beamlines was about 250 millions euro and it was only slightly exceeded. Project was financed 50/50 by the regional government of Catalonia and central government of Spain. While being Spanish national scientific institution it is used by scientists from all over the world (with the current exception of those affiliated with research institutions in Russia, described below). In order to have an idea about the cost of construction of beamline it can be mentioned that on average it is somewhere in the order of 4 to 8 million euro, while the Infrared beamline is the “cheapest” one up to now, with ca 1 million spent on its construction.

Malysheva: Who is doing the experiments?

Šics: Approximately 85% of the available experimental time (beamtime, as it is called at this type of facilities) is dedicated to the scientists from external scientific institutions like CSIC and research groups in universities. This includes as well experimentalists coming from the industry. Some small amount of the available beamtime is kept as a reserve for unplanned/unforeseen circumstances and the rest of it is used by scientists working at ALBA (those same people who initially designed and developed each particular beamline) for their scientific research work (in-house research). Research work done by ALBA staff researchers is being valued by the same criteria as that of their peers at other scientific institutions — quality and quantity of the publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Access to the facility is open and based on the quality criteria of the research proposals from those groups from public research institutions who wish to carry out their experiments at ALBA. Two times a year they can submit their proposals and request a beamtime (typically a few days). Proposals are then reviewed by a commission of external experts for different scientific and safety aspects and awarded (or not) a certain period of beamtime. The results of these studies are open and available for general public after publishing them.

In addition, there are industrial experiments, carried out by company R&D representatives and other commercial users. The rules of access are different in this case. These users may apply for the beamtime at any moment during the year, without the need to wait for the official proposal submission periods. The results of their experiments are property of the company (a trade secret) and they are not obliged to share them.

When a new experiment starts at a beamline, it is supported by a group of local scientists (4 — 5 people), since it is difficult for beginners to study and set up all the equipment from scratch.

To attract more industrial users, ALBA holds workshops.

It is typical and considered “normal” that approximately 2 to 3 times more experiment proposals are requested than the physically available beamtimetime not all pass the selection. Some beamlines offer “remote mode experiment” option, where samples are delivered to the beamline by a courier mail (e.g. Fedex or UPS) in special containers. Staff scientist then just transfers and loads samples into the experimental station, while “the owner” of the samples subsequently carries out experiments remotely via the Internet. At some other synchrotron facilities, experiment beamtime is even used for clinical diagnostics of samples taken from patients being treated in a hospital, as there is no comparable laboratory equipment offering the same diagnostic capacity.

Malysheva: Why is such research necessary?

Šics: This is an investment in the future. All progressive countries invest in science. The results of our research are used in physics, chemistry, geology, biology, pharmacology, microbiology, nanotechnology. It is also true that sometimes it takes quite a long time for this kind of investment to start paying back. Society may even start questioning if this investment is justified when other more basic and urgent needs in everyday life are not properly addressed and resolved. This is where political will and wisdom of those invested with power (political establishment, government etc) should play a role. It is absolutely obvious that all developed countries invest heavily into education and science and it always pays back.

Malysheva: Your door is plastered with posters in support of Ukraine, you hand out badges, participate in protests, collect aid. Why is it so important for you personally to be with the Ukrainians now?

Šics: We all have been taught starting from childhood to distinguish good from evil, to be honest and just, to respect others. Something from it all must have catched on in my subconsciousness. Somehow mixed together with my knowledge of history (or, to be more objective — versions of it that I have learned and studied), with years of life and world, how it passes in front of my eyes. It all makes me the person I am today. And I see what russian government has been doing and is doing today. I have learned the history of my country Latvia and some history of russia and that of the Soviet Union (which is where my childhood and young adult years took place). Like many, I thought that russia as a country has changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the implosion of the regime that is known as communism. Well, they didn’t. Today I see the russian imperialist forces trying to build a new version of the empire. Not soviet, not communist , just russian/slavic. I see them proclaiming the doctrine of some kind of slavic fascism as their ideology for reconstruction of this new empire. They took years meticulously preparing, grooming and brainwashing their population. To me it all reeks of nazi Germany between the WWI and WWII. History repeated in a slow motion movie. I see (and feel) a huge injustice and atrocity committed against the Ukrainian people and state by russia. I see history repeating in the same way as it happened to Baltic states and other countries that were annexed by the Soviet Union. The same main actors — KGB/FSB, same scenarios from the same KGB playbooks-manuals. Declare the neighboring state as the enemy of civilization, bribe some locals to ask for russian intervention to give some appearance of legitimacy to the whole enterprise and invade. Claims of historic birth-rights, wrongs and injustices that have to be undone by, well… exterminating the neighbor and taking all they have. I have read the piece that was published in the RIA website “What to do with Ukrainians” by Timofei Sergeitsev (3 April 2022) and which became known in many Western media as a “russian fascist manifesto” and it made me sick. I do not know why, but I just can not look the other way and tell — it’s none of my business. I feel for these people, I see and read what Ukrainian refugees in Spain talk about and look for help. I see people which country maybe was not ideal (neither was Latvia), maybe had economical problems. I’ve heard of huge political problems fragmented society (similar in Latvia) and untamed omnipresent corruption, which was and according to many, is still a problem to certain extent in Latvia. Ukrainians probably had a long and hard road in front of them to take their place with other democratic countries, but they made their choice. They fought for it in 2014 and shed their blood on Maidan square. Now, russian fascist government is trying to take it all away. My consciousness just won’t let me live without protesting against this repeating history of atrocities committed in the name russian glory, covered up in layers of lies upon lies.

Malysheva: How did ALBA scientists react to the war? What about Russian scientists?

Šics: Here at ALBA, scientific staff (and technical as well but to a lesser extent) is made up of people from many countries and nationalities. Already from the very first days there was a sympathetic reaction towards Ukraine’s tragedy, when the country was deceitfully invaded by russian troops under the disguise of night. At that time we just joined a support campaign organized in town of St.Cugat del Vallès, by participating in demonstration and collecting humanitarian aid. People at ALBA were actively discussing the development of the situation in Ukraine and inquiring colleagues with origins from Central and Eastern European countries. An ALBAinternal email channel was created for sharing news and announcements related to the war in Ukraine. However, after a while, it seemed that people got tired and used to this war, going on somewhere on the far, other side of Europe. Only a few of us (as far as I know) — a Ukrainian, a Romanian, a Russian and me Latvian continued participating in protest demonstrations organized by the Ukrainian organizations in Barcelona. I have to notice, that all of my Russian origin colleagues took a clear stance against this war and condemned the actions of putin and his henchmen. I am (as well as probably other colleagues who can read russian and/or ukrainian) actively following the situation in Ukraine not only from TV news but from many sources available on the Internet and most operative ones — on Telegram channels. I felt a need to start sharing with colleagues the news that I was absorbing from Telegram. Not only the dry statistics about the losses in the quantity of towns and square kilometers, but something else. Something that I hoped would put a human face, show ukrainian people suffering and show things that do not appear on Spanish TV, but at the same time not giving in to the wish of vengeance showing gore and carnage. I started actively using this email channel to publish material that seemed worthy to me. What I probably wanted is not to allow this war to become some ¨everyday background news¨, not to become the ¨new normal¨ like it happened with many other outrageous things before. Like the annexation of Crimea, years of war in the East of Ukraine and so on… Sometimes people commented back to me on issues I have been publishing and quite frankly, that really was satisfying. But even if I do not hear back, I just have this need/urge to reflect to them this conflict in the light I see it in. And it seems it was not in vain. At one point, shortly before Easter, a campaign was started at ALBA to collect money donations for the Ukrainian cause. Some 50 colleagues participated and 1800 euros were collected in approximately two weeks. 1/3 of this amount was transferred to the volunteer organization at Diputacion street 168 in Barcelona who helps with food and first necessity items for Ukrainian refugees in Barcelona and surroundings. 2/3 of the collected money was transferred to a Ukrainian organization in Estonia promoted by Mr. Arkady Babchenko, which assists Armed Forces of Ukraine by procuring medical supplies as well as personal protection means (helmets, bulletproof vests, personal communication equipment etc). With war going on, refugee influx into Spain was increasing and despite the official institutionalized assistance they were receiving, it was obvious that many needs were not fulfilled. It could be clearly seen from the communications on the Telegram channel of this volunteer organization at Diputacion168 street, where refugees were publishing inquiries for the simplest things they needed for living, apart from food that was in constant demand. Then, a little more than three weeks ago one of our catalan colleagues at the laboratory, Cristina, came forward with an initiative to start a campaign of collecting food, medicine, hygiene articles and other humanitarian donations for this volunteer center in Barcelona. With the blessing of our director we placed a few large boxes with banners in an area where people daily pass by going for lunch in ALBA cafeteria. Cristina started a communications campaign using the same ALBA email channel that was created for the purpose of sharing news on Ukraine and colleagues responded by filling up these boxes with donations. Participation was somewhat slow on the first week, but progressively (and noticeably) increasing with time.

Malysheva: Does ALBA continue to cooperate with russian scientific projects or has it joined the boycott of everything russian?

Šics: Very soon after the russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a communique issued by ALBA administration about abandoning all collaborations with scientific institutions in Russia ands Belarus

Similar stance has been adopted by scientific institutions in Germany (HZB, DESY). There was an email message on 02/03/22 informing that German Federal Ministry of Education and Research has sent directives to all German research institutes to suspend cooperation with Russian and Belarusian institutes with immediate effect.

Malysheva: You made a petition to rename an avenue in Barcelona. Why is it necessary to rename the avenue near the russian consulate?

Šics: It is an act of civil resistance to silently accepting violence imposed and committed by the neighborhood bully. Elevating the victim of an aggression and making it an omnipresent reminder to the aggressor that his deeds are not and will not be accepted by the “neighborhood”. Every time a letter is sent to or from the Consulate General of RF in Barcelona, every occasion when they must write heir address, I want them to face the shame over the crimes they have commited in Ukraine. This kind of acts are not new nor original. Streets where embassies and consulates of Russia are located have been already renamed in this way in many cities around the Europe and rest of the world. “Neighborhood” is pointing finger at Russia and telling — your behavior is not acceptable, your are acting as scum.

Malysheva: How do you rate the assistance to refugees in Spain?

Nosych: Spain was politically and economically not ready for refugees in the way, for example, Germany or France. This is a sleepy, Mediterranean, warm and poor country that lives off tourists and agriculture. Nevertheless, they did the impossible — they accepted tens of thousands of people, providing them with housing, food, medical care and the right to work. Therefore, with all the jambs and shortcomings, Ukraine’s support is unprecedented and invaluable, both at the political level and on a personal level between people.

Šics: One thing that I feel is missing, is government taking strong stance against those people in Spain, spanish nationals and foreign residents, who profess pro-russo imperialist ideology and justify russian aggression against Ukraine.

Malysheva: What should the West do to stop russian expansion?

Nosych: Open your eyes, intervene in the war and end it on your own terms before it intervenes itself.

Šics: Yes, I agree with this statement. However, it seems incredible that so many countries have claimed to support Ukraine in this war against russian aggression, but so little advanced military help is being provided in reality. Sometimes it makes me wonder what political game is being played? It seems that everyone is interested to curb Russia as it is gradually sliding into a full blown fascism ideology and regime, becoming more and more dangerous to the Europe as well as the rest of the world. While the rate of military assistance is still at the level that just barely keeps Ukrainians able to fight the war against a numerically superior enemy. It seems that nobody really cares about the people of Ukraine being slowly slaughtered and bled out.


Экскурсия на ALBA Synchrotron 19.6.2022

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