More Science, Less War: An Unlikely Story of Cooperation in the Middle East
President Donald Trump is confident he can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It is something that I think is frankly, maybe, not as difficult as people have thought over the years,” said Trump at a White House lunch on May 3 with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In his quest for what he has called the “ultimate deal,” Trump might seek inspiration from Eliezer Rabinovici, an Israeli physicist and professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University who has doggedly pursued his own vision of cooperation in the Middle East for over 20 years. Two weeks after Abbas’ White House visit, Rabinovici’s project took a giant step forward with a comparatively unheralded ceremony in Allan, Jordan.
On May 16, Jordan’s King Abdullah II was in Allan to officially open Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), a particle accelerator operated jointly by Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, and Cyprus.
Iran and Pakistan do not recognize Israel. Turkey and Cyprus have no diplomatic ties. Yet researchers from these countries and beyond are now working together in Jordan’s western hills, whizzing around electrons to study everything from pollution to cancer—and, hopefully, revolutionizing science in the Middle East.
Synchrotrons use powerful magnets to direct particles in loops, raising the particles’ energy until they are moving at hundreds of millions of meters per second. In SESAME’s case, those ultra-fast particles are electrons that emit pulses of light whenever they change direction. This synchrotron light is extremely bright, and its rays are almost perfectly parallel, making it valuable for a variety of scientific work.
A beamline of SESAME’s lower-energy infrared light was first used by Iranian scientist Fatemeh Elmi in a study, now published, of chemical differences between breast cancer tumors and normal tissue. With the same instrument, a Cypriot-Egyptian team hopes to examine millennia-old human remains from Iran, and a Jordanian marine biologist plans to investigate how sponges affect the carbon cycle in Red Sea coral reefs.
Meanwhile, soil samples from the Jordan River Valley will be analyzed with higher-energy X-rays, allowing Jordanian, Egyptian, and Palestinian researchers to identify locations with unsafe levels of toxic metals and radiation. Once it opens in 2019, another light beam will use X-rays to reveal the structures of proteins—a key step in pharmaceutical development.
“Somebody with a bright idea could get a Nobel with this,” Christopher Llewellyn Smith, who was president of SESAME’s governing council when the accelerator opened, told The New York Times.
Little of this research was possible in the Middle East before SESAME, which has the region’s first synchrotron. The Jordan Valley soil samples, for instance, were previously studied using X-rays from an Italian light source, while the Cypriot and Egyptian archaeologists will be building on earlier work at France’s SOLEIL accelerator.
Speaking with Nature, Israeli researcher Jan Gunneweg—who hopes to use SESAME’s light to study the composition of the Dead Sea Scrolls—noted the practical benefit of a local synchrotron, especially for archaeologists handling fragile artifacts like mummies and papyri. “If that material has to go in the air, you destroy it,” said Gunneweg.
Turkish physicist Özgül Öztürk, who will use the X-ray beams to analyze nanometer-thick wires, mentioned another simple reason why the region’s scientists are excited about SESAME. “I will have more opportunity to get beam time here than at most of the European facilities,” she wrote in a promotional booklet for the accelerator.
Of course, SESAME also serves to unite individuals from countries not often associated with peaceful collaboration. “It’s a beacon, one lighthouse, in this era where there is killing, beheadings, gassing. We are showing a different way,” Rabinovici told The Washington Post.
Rabinovici knows more than most about how advancements in science can promote international cooperation. For decades, he has been affiliated with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
“CERN itself,” Rabinovici wrote in an account he shared with The Politic, “was built after World War II in an effort to help heal Europe and European science and scientists in particular.”
Six decades on, it has 22 full member states and has provided us with the Higgs boson, antimatter, and the World Wide Web.
Rabinovici had long been interested in replicating CERN’s model closer to home. But after Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed their first-ever face-to-face treaty in 1993, a colleague convinced him to try and turn his “idealism” into a reality.
The effort took off with a November 1995 meeting in Dahab, Egypt, attended by about a hundred researchers from the Arab world, Israel, and elsewhere. The proceedings took place in a Bedouin tent—and were interrupted by a magnitude 6.9 earthquake. According to Rabinovici, the scientists “had seen Mt. Sinai shake,” but they suffered no casualties. Separately, one delegate nearly drowned in the Red Sea but was saved by a student from a different country.
“What clearer signals could one ask for,” Rabinovici later wrote, “to show us that we are on an interesting track?”
The group’s ambitions received a major boost in 1997, when German scientists proposed using the components of BESSY I, a synchrotron light source in Berlin due to be dismantled, to build a similar facility in the Middle East. Today, the reassembled BESSY I serves as SESAME’s booster, accelerating electrons until they have about a third of their final energy.
But Rabinovici and his colleagues were adamant that in order to attract world-class research, any proposed Middle Eastern light source would have to be more than a recycled and relocated older machine. Thus began the construction of SESAME’s brand new storage ring, which now circulates electrons for hours to bring them within 0.000003% of light speed.
Finding money to build structures like the storage ring was not easy. “Most of [SESAME’s member countries] did not have a tradition of significant support for basic science,” Rabinovici noted, and this never bodes well for a project with a nearly $100 million price tag.
The European Union, CERN, and the International Atomic Energy Agency all provided assistance, but just five years ago, SESAME remained tens of millions of dollars short of its funding goal. And despite repeated appeals, the U.S. government never gave SESAME direct monetary support.
“The suspicion is that, because Iran is a member, that’s a third rail that nobody wants to touch,” Herman Winick, a Stanford professor who was one of the project’s first proponents, told The Washington Post.
In 2012, the gap was mostly closed by member states, starting with a $5 million Israeli contribution that Rabinovici had personally lobbied for. Turkey, Jordan, and Iran quickly made equivalent pledges. More recently, Jordan has agreed to construct a solar power plant to cover SESAME’s significant electricity needs, potentially making it the world’s first particle accelerator to exclusively use renewable energy.
Political concerns have affected SESAME: the accelerator is located in Jordan in part because, when construction began, Jordan was the only member country that had diplomatic relations with all of the others. In 2010, Iran blamed Israel’s Mossad intelligence service for the assassinations of two Iranian nuclear scientists affiliated with the project. Iran has also not yet fulfilled its promised $5 million contribution, claiming that sanctions prevent it from paying.
But overall, the spirit has been closer to that of the 1995 Dahab meeting, which took place just weeks after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. At the meeting, an Egyptian government minister called for a moment of silence in Rabin’s memory; Arab and Israeli delegates stood together in solemn remembrance. “The silence echoes in my ears till today,” Rabinovici wrote.
Nearly twenty years later, in March 2015, Rabinovici experienced a similarly poignant moment when he touched the “real, hard steel” of the storage ring’s magnets. Rabinovici knew then that what he might have once dismissed as a fantasy project would be up and running within a few years—and he was right.
To describe what he and SESAME have achieved, Rabinovici turned to a metaphor from his own field, string theory, which is famous for making predictions about multiple universes in which different laws of physics may apply.
“I am the one who gets to visit a parallel universe where administrators and scientists from the [Middle East] get to work together, in the interests of their own people and in the interest of humanity as a whole, in a common project,” Rabinovici wrote.
Few people believed it would be easy to reach that parallel universe, and it was not. But with unfailing persistence and what Rabinovici called “an infinite, and nothing less than infinite, dose of optimism,” it is no longer a dream, but a reality.