AMMAN — The muezzin's sends out the last call to prayer in the winter twilight. The cube-shaped houses lined up against Amman's 19 hills take on pastel tones as the sun sets. But a new source of light emerged on Jan. 11 — one that aims to bathe the entire Middle East. They are the first rays of particles circulated at Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, or SESAME. The project has been conceived of as a model of scientific diplomacy, a different way to try to bring about peace.
"Having long been a promise, it's now become a reality," says Giorgio Paolucci, the Italian scientific director of SESAME.
The entrance to SESAME, with its Greek columns, evokes a Las Vegas-themed casino. Inside, dozens of concrete blocks, arranged in a star shape, cover the 133-meter particle accelerator. In the control room, a Jordanian technician explains to an Israeli chemist the machine's nuances. Further away, a Pakistani professor with a long, square-shaped beard listens to the Egyptian manager Gihan Kamel. This is actually the 14th SESAME users meeting, where dozens of specialists arrived from Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, and Palestine — the consortium's nine member countries.
Any resemblance to CERN, the European Council for Nuclear Research born in Geneva in 1954 in the middle of the Cold War, is obvious.
Nobody believed in it.
"The key idea is to bring together scientists from Middle Eastern countries that sometimes have tense relations to work on applied science projects," Paolucci explains.
For now, at least, the recipe seems to be working. Israeli biophysicist Roy Beck-Barkai led a presentation on the best ways to exploit synchrotron's potential. His audience, made up of mostly young Arab searchers, listened with care.
"Ten years ago, many would have left the room simply because of the speaker's nationality," says an emotional Kamel. "It's the achievement of our common vision."
This vision was born in 1994, just after the Oslo accords between Israel and Palestine. The idea was to use science as a vehicle of cooperation in the Middle East.
"Nobody believed in it," recollects Eliezer Rabinovici, a physicist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
A symposium followed in 1995, with hundreds of local researchers and Nobel Prize laureates crowding under a tent in the Egyptian Sinai. There was plenty of good will but no ideas on how to make it materialize. In 1997, two physicists, American Herman Winick and German Gus Voss, saw there was a "hole between the Middle East and Africa" on the world map of synchrotrons and offered to recycle one from Berlin, "Bessy I", which was on its way to a junkyard.
The idea gained momentum. Each of the consortium's members listed what they could bring to the project.
"In 2003, the King of Jordan decided to support the project by offering land," explains Khaled Toukan, the director of SESAME. "The choice of Amman for the location was appropriate because only this country had maintained diplomatic relations with all of the others.” The project was placed under the auspices of UNESCO.
But it soon emerged that the idea of recycling an old accelerator wasn't the best way to truly advance the cause of science, says Paolucci. Some of the elements of Bessy I had to be converted into an electron booster for SESAME. So the structure of the future synchrotron was brought anew.
During its gestation, SESAME went through plenty of twists and turns: The roof collapsed because of snow, two Iranian nuclear scientists and members of the SESAME council were killed and, most importantly, funding was low. The slightest political jolt in the region affected the consortium. When the government changed in Egypt, the funds allocated to the project were frozen. Iran wasn't able to pay its share at first because of the economic embargo and financial sanctions.
Photo: SESAME Facebook page
The situation improved in 2012 when the CERN, via its former director Chris Llewellyn Smith, convinced the European Union to allocate money to the project. This encouraged other European governments to support the project. But neither the U.S. nor Saudi Arabia followed suit because of Iran's presence.
Even though the total budget wasn’t secured, the synchrotron was constructed and launched. It's now set to be inaugurated on May 16 in the presence of the King of Jordan.
Dead Sea alive
So, what will the installation do? It can be used in a variety of subjects from materials science and archaeology to chemistry and biology. Beck-Barkai is thinking about using it to study how nano molecules assemble. His fellow countryman Jan Gunneweg, a specialist in Dead Sea Scrolls, wants to shed light on how they were made using SESAME.
Kamel says she hopes to use the instrument's infrared either to improve mammary biopsies or to study the therapeutic effect of plant oils extracts on tissue infected with Alzheimer's. The Pakistani professor Imran wants to find out how to create pharmacological molecules with lower side-effects. Meanwhile, Palestinian Bassalat is going to use the machine to track the presence of germs in drinking water.
SESAME will also benefit from the technology transfer it brings, says Toukan: "The goal is to make it world-class science.”
Paolucci says the central criteria for using the machine will be neither political or economic, but: "scientific merit."
Iranians, in particular, look on this project with a favorable eye. Mahmoud Tabrizchi, a chemist from the Isfahan University, reckons that SESAME has helped his country by stimulating the construction of their own synchrotron, 100 kilometers from Tehran, which is expected to be completed within seven years. "We intend to learn a lot from SESAME," he notes.
“There are about 60 other such installations in the world but not enough time to use them for all projects. Just like you don't need a Ferrari to drive your children to school, this one will be more than enough for many experiments,” says Beck-Barkai. So much so that it will be working 24/7.
Peace at last?
Maedeh Darzi, a young researcher in archaeometry from Iran who works with Jan Gunneweg, an Israeli, says about SESAME’s ability to bring about peace: "I believe so, even though it will take time."
On the other side of the Jordan River from SESAME, people are more cautious.
Great things often start with small steps.
"I live in Nablus in the West Bank, 80 kilometers away, but it took me more than a day to get here because the border isn't always open," Palestinian Ahmad Bassalat says. "One of my Ph.D. students was denied entry into Jordan for security reasons even though he has a French grant."
Bassalat wonders what the point is in "talking about science" in Amman if it's impossible to get there for political reasons. "Peace is elsewhere," he says.
Imran adds: "Like music and arts, science has no borders. That said, peace is a great thing. But great things often start with small steps."
The diplomatic expectations have an effect on the work of scientists. "Yes, we do feel the pressure," Kamel admits. "But now, all researchers of the region have their own need to make it succeed. And even if the Western support should stop, I'm positive we’ll still make it. This common motivation alone already feels like peace."