How Jordan's particle accelerator is bringing together Middle East enemies

America Abroad

Less than hour outside Amman is the Middle East’s only major international scientific research center. The Jordanian town of Al-Salt is home to SESAME, which stands for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East.

SESAME stands out among the modest homes that dot the hillsides of Al-Salt, with its large, four-story, white stone building and turquoise roof. High fences surround the campus.

“This is the first accelerator in the Middle East,” says Giorgio Paolucci, the scientific director of SESAME. “That in itself is a big accomplishment.”

Most of the interior is one large open space, about double the size of football field, with offices lining the edges. In the middle is the synchrotron, housed in a circular metal casing.

The accelerator, or electron synchrotron is similar to a proton synchrotron — like CERN near Geneva. But instead of probing the fundamental questions of physics, synchrotrons like the one at SESAME allow scientists to investigate surfaces and materials too small even for powerful microscopes.  

SESAME produces radiation by spinning millions of electrons inside a ring with a circumference of 133 meters. That radiation is funneled into beam lines that can be used to determine everything from the type of paint used in ancient art to pollutants in an air sample. And that attracts scientists from across disciplines.

“In the university, in the physics department, you will only have physicists interacting with physicists,” says Paolucci. “Here you will have physicists interacting with chemists, medical doctors and engineers. You have new ideas.”

But what really makes SESAME unique is its members: Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Cyprus and Turkey. In addition to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel and Iran have no diplomatic ties. Iran and Egypt have had frosty relations since Egypt offered the Shah of Iran asylum more than three decades ago. Turkey doesn’t recognize Cyprus’s control of the northern, Turkish-speaking part of the island. But in the labs of SESAME, they put all that aside — in theory, at least.

Behind a heavy metal door Algerian Masoud Harfoush is working with a beam line produced by the synchrotron. In the small room they are using the beam line to test soil from a farming area near the Jordan River, not far from where Christians believe Jesus was baptized. A few shoebox-sized machines are connected with wires and cables.

“We are looking for heavy metals like chrome, chromium, copper,” says Harfoush, turning on the beam line. “Something harmful to humans or animals.”

The idea for SESAME was born in a much more hopeful time. First floated by Pakistani physicist Mohammad Abdus Salam in the early 1980s, it was only in the mid 1990s — after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo peace accords and shook hands on the lawn of the White House — that the idea really gained traction.

Eliezer Rabinovici was one of the first Israeli scientists involved in the project.

“I think the now-vilified Oslo Accords played a very important role in enabling such a thing to start,” says Rabinovici, who served as vice president of SESAME.

He describes a meeting between Israeli and Arab scientists in a tent in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in 1995.

“It was a Bedouin tent colored very strongly in red,” says Rabinovici. “That was our first meeting — [at] a time when we were trying to do collaboration [between] Arabs and Israelis, on the small scale. We later moved on to a larger scale.”

The 1993 Oslo Accords outlined a peace plan that called for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within five years. The hope was that it would pave the way for peace treaties between Israel and other Middle East states and a generally more peaceful region.

But instead came the Second Palestinian Intifada. Israel and the Palestinian Territories saw some of the worst violence in decades.

At the same time, the SESAME project saw delay after delay.

Then in 2003, they finally broke ground on the site in Al-Salt. The building was completed in 2008 and construction started on the synchrotron.

Last May, more than two decades after that meeting in the Sinai desert, SESAME finally opened its doors. It’s now home to scientists — not just from member countries but other regional states and international observers, many, like Paolucci, from Europe.

“When I told my colleagues that I was coming here, people looked at me and said, ‘that is never going to work’,” recalls Paolucci. “There was a lot of skepticism. People were honestly surprised to see that we were able to build the accelerator and make it run.”

A few doors down, Egyptian and Jordanian scientists discuss a vacuum component of the accelerator. Among them is Adel Amro, a Jordanian scientist who was one of the first people to join the project.

“We are happy to see scientists from all the member countries sitting here, far away from politics,” says Amro, who says he believes science can promote peace. “We are sitting now together, all at one table talking about science.”

This sort of science for peace isn’t a new idea. Paolucci says it was started at CERN, the Center for High Energy Physics in Geneva.

“That was a place where the two sides of the iron curtain would meet,” says Paolucci. At CERN, American scientists worked alongside Russian scientists, as well as scientists from both Eastern and Western Europe.

“We imported that model to the Middle East. It works. When we talk science, people forget about politics.”

That might not be strictly true, but Paolucci says he’s seen things here that shocked him.

“There was a discussion about some technical issue and the Israeli delegate expressed his point of view, and then the Iranian delegate said ‘I fully agree with Israel’,” says Paolucci.

This year has seen a significant rise in regional tensions. Israel carried out airstrikes in Syria after shooting down what it says was an Iranian drone entering its airspace from Syria. The incident sparked fears of a new conflict between the countries. At the same time, Turkish and Syrian forces came closer than ever to confrontation.

“Of course we have echoes of what’s happening in the region,” says Paolucci, “however when you put scientists together, they tend to talk about science.”

If regional tensions rise, Paolucci says the center would be even more important.

But the biggest challenge isn’t bringing scientists from warring states together or managing the Middle East’s political landscape, he says. It’s money. Around $100 million has already been invested by the member countries and other donors including the European Union and UNESCO. Other countries, including the US, UK, France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland, donated equipment or expertise. Jordan, which likely has the best relations with other regional states, offered the location and paid for the construction of SESAME.

“It’s really becoming a hub for science in this region,” says Paolucci. “People travel here with their samples, to look at them, and above everything to interact with each other.”

The member states all have an obligation to make contributions toward the center’s annual operating budget of about $6 million. But in a region fraught by conflict, where few governments have prioritized science funding, that can be difficult. SESAME is looking to get more scientists from countries such as Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf States to use the center.

The hope is that if those scientists use the SESAME it will help persuade their governments to become contributing member states. That would bring in new money to the center, allowing the people here to keep practicing science and peace.

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