ALLAN, southern Jordan — The hope was to build a tool that can probe the secrets of the material world. The dream is that such a tool will not just bring world-class science to the Middle East, but also unprecedented cooperation across a conflict-ridden region.
In January, the hope was fulfilled. Scientists in Allan, Jordan, using a particle accelerator, propelled electrons around a 133 meter-long ring until they reached close to the speed of light. These speeding electrons emit powerful light that can be used to investigate the tiniest elements of any material.
That moment was the culmination of over a decade and a half of bi-annual meetings between scientists from countries that don’t often get along: Israel, Iran, Cyprus, Turkey, Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.
Over the years, war, and especially funding shortages, threatened to derail the project, which was blessed and even paid for by these scientists’ governments.
In a salient example of the shaky political ground the regional project is built on, Israel’s Science Minister Ofir Akunis, in a last-minute decision, canceled his participation at the inauguration ceremony for the project in Jordan on Tuesday after a stabbing attack by a Jordanian national in Jerusalem on Saturday sparked a diplomatic row between Amman and Jerusalem.
But over the years, except for one time when Israeli scientists were barred from Morocco, none of the scientists from any country skipped a meeting between member states. And while Israel might have stayed away from the opening ceremony, the scientific cooperation will go on.
The idea is not a novel one. Ten years after World War II, European states — both inside and outside of the Iron Curtain of communism — joined forces to build CERN, the world’s largest center for particle physics study.
Middle Eastern governments faced a choice: either jump on the cooperation train or lag behind. And that’s how this tool, known as SESAME, which stands for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, got started.
Former CERN director Rolf-Dieter Heuer, a German particle physicist, is slated to become the president of the Council of SESAME.
Heuer considers SESAME a “competitive” light source and said he is “sure” it will attract top scientists from across the region. Though travel between Middle Eastern countries is often more complicated than just flying to Europe, he envisions “regional pride” will inspire Middle Eastern scientists to flock to Jordan.
There are only 60 Synchrotron light sources around the world, but before SESAME, there were none in the Middle East.
At the height of the Cold War, recalled Heuer, the cafeteria at CERN was a single point of mingling between the West and those behind the Iron Curtain.
Heuer is confident the SESAME cafe — as yet unbuilt due to budgetary issues — could serve a similar purpose, with the “language of science” as a common tongue.
CERN scientists helped design the machinery at SESAME. Yet the tool would never have been built had an Italian scientist not entered the office of an Israeli scientist in 1994 and told him it was time to put his ideals to the test.
‘We had to find something other than words’
In 1993, Israeli physicist and string theory researcher Eliezer Rabinovitch was working in CERN when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shook hands with Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn.
Not too long after that peace process kicked off, Italian physicist Sergio Fubini entered the office of Rabinovitch. They had often discussed the political situation back in Israel.
“It’s time to put your naive idealism to the test,” Fubini told Rabinovitch. The Israeli physicist accepted the challenge.
The two set out to create a regional committee of scientists that included Jordanians, Egyptians, Moroccans, Palestinians and Israelis. The idea was simple: Scientific cooperation would help propel the aims of the peace process.
That committee soon led to a meeting in 1995 at the Egyptian Red Sea town of Dahab, where hundreds of scientists from the region and Western scientists, Nobel laureates and soon-to-be laureates, gathered in a big Bedouin tent.
According to Rabinovitch, then Egyptian minister of Scientific Research Prof. Venice Gauda called for a minute of silence to commemorate Rabin, who had been assassinated by an extremist Israeli.
This group got its big break in 1997 when German scientists offered to donate BESSY, a particle accelerator light source that was going to be replaced.
Rabinovitch was hesitant. He wanted first-class science or nothing at all, and a second-hand German machine wasn’t going to get the job done.
“On the other hand,” he said, “it became apparent, especially after Pakistan, Iran and Turkey showed interest, we had to find something other than words to build on.”
The more he thought about it, the more Rabinovitch realized a light source like BESSY was ideal: the tool can be used for all types of scientific research, including biology, physics, chemistry and archaeology. With a light source, the widest net would be cast.
How did Iran and Pakistan, two countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel, join the group?
“You’ll have to ask Islamabad and Tehran,” said Rabinovitch.
SESAME is under the auspices of The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This allows all agreements by SESAME member states to be made through an intermediary.
Building SESAME was ‘a tough ride’
The SESAME complex is a pearly-white building in arid southern Jordan. The entrance is designed like a Greek temple, though no frieze graces the triangular roof.
Inside the building the walls are bare. It seems there wasn’t much of a budget for fancy interior design. It’s just a modest home for advance machinery.
Though the SESAME project was started with the donation of BESSY, ultimately the project’s leaders decided to build a new particle accelerator to ensure top quality for its users.
But BESSY lives on at SESAME in one machine — the giant purple disk that creates the electrons that are fed into the accelerator.
This was just one decision made in order to keep costs down.
Khaled Toukan, the chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission and director of SESAME, described the project as a “rough ride.”
Beyond the technical and political issues, “financial challenges were the real obstacle,” he told a crowd on Saturday at a conference at the Dead Sea, Jordan, which was sponsored by the Sharing Knowledge Foundation (SKF) — a Switzerland-based nonprofit that promotes scientific dialogue to advance development in the Middle East and Africa.
In 2002, Jordan was officially chosen to be the location, said Toukan, and the Hashemite Kingdom gladly accepted its place as a center for regional cooperation.
Jordan was chosen to host SESAME because it is the most stable country in the region that allows any all nationalities in the Middle East to enter its borders.
Over $98 million have so far been invested in the project, the bulk coming from member states, especially Jordan, as well as the European Union. The US, to the open derision of some stakeholders, hasn’t donated much.
In one example of unique funding issues, Iran was unable to pay its membership dues because of the heavy international sanctions that were levied on the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program — no Jordanian bank would accept a money transfer from the politically isolated country.
A king buys 2,100 PlayStations
In a loud room where SESAME’s servers are held, Mustafa Zoabi, a Jordanian computer systems engineer, proudly pulled out a PlayStation 3 from a closet.
Zoabi explained he created a supercomputer by putting together the power of 2,100 PlayStation 3s, which were all purchased by Jordanian King Abdullah II.
“Money is the main factor,” he said to a group of scientists and journalists on Saturday visiting the facility on a tour sponsored by SKF.
Each of those gaming systems cost $400 at the time,whereas independent servers of the same computing capacity cost $5,000 each.
But despite the penny-pinching, scientists who visited SESAME that day said the machinery looked impressive.
Ahmed Bassalat, a physics professor at An-Najah University in Nablus in the West Bank, who has experience working at CERN, said SESAME “without a doubt will advance Palestinian science.”
Bassalat is a thesis adviser to one student who already has a grant to do her research at SESAME.
Martin Gastal, an applied physics researcher at CERN, called the site “a facility of enormous potential.”
He warned, however, that scientists would need to be certain that when they arrived at SESAME, the site would be operating smoothly and efficiently. With just a few days to work, every hour at the site is precious, he said.
Without “the funding the facility deserves,” he added, daily operations could be affected.
‘Politics won’t affect the science’
The country roads to SESAME are recently well-paved. The Jordanian king is slated to attend the official inauguration on Tuesday. SESAME, however, has already begun to bear fruit.
Prof. Amr Abdelghany, a researcher of Spectroscopy at the Department at National Research Center in Egypt, was one of the first to use the SESAME site for a project.
“After doing research at SESAME, it was easy for me to get published in high-level journals,” he said.
But while the light source proved a boon for his research, he noted its existence was still relatively unknown in the region. He said he has continued to see the same scientists at bi-annual meetings for users.
Did Abdelghany think the politics surrounding SESAME would obstruct the work?
The Egyptian scientist argued the opposite was true. He noted that finding scientific partners in the region, which is necessary for expanding knowledge, is difficult, and SESAME creates a context for such partnerships.
The Egyptian dismissed fears that governments might impede scientific partnerships at SESAME due to political developments.
“This project was created at the governmental level,” he said. “Why would they have an issue with the scientists working together?”
Zoabi, the Jordanian computer engineer, felt the same way about Israelis working at SESAME.
“They are partners in the project,” he said.