Sesame synchrotron is a flash of unity in Middle East

By David Shukman
Science editor, BBC News

  • Published
Media caption,

David Shukman spoke to scientists from different countries in the region about what the project means to them

Amid rising tensions in one of the world's most volatile regions, an audacious project to use science for diplomacy is taking shape in the heart of the Middle East.

In this land of ancient hatreds, a highly sophisticated scientific installation is being built in Jordan.

It has support from countries that are usually openly hostile to each other.

The plan is for a multi-million-pound synchrotron particle accelerator, known as Sesame.

It has backing from several Arab nations, together with Turkey, Pakistan, Cyprus, Iran and - astonishingly - Israel as well.

The Iranian government is publicly committed to Israel's destruction and Israel has threatened to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. And most recently Israel accused Iran of supplying Palestinian militants with the missiles launched at Israeli cities.

Image caption,
Synchrotrons work by accelerating electrons around a circular tube

Yet the governments of both these countries and others have pledged to provide more funding to Sesame, and BBC News witnessed their scientists and officials meeting for lengthy discussions in Jordan earlier this month.

After years of doubts about the project's feasibility, construction is now at an advanced stage and most of the next round of finance is secured. The first science could start as early as 2015.

The synchrotron, which acts in effect like a giant microscope, will be used by researchers to study everything from viruses to new drugs to novel materials.

Synchrotrons have become an indispensable tool for modern science with some 60 in use around the world, almost all of them in developed countries, and this will be the first in the Middle East.

No barriers

Media caption,

David Shukman takes a look around the Sesame facility

The goal of fostering advanced research in the region - and opening a new path of dialogue - was first suggested back in the 1990s. Just as Cern was set up after World War Two to bring together scientists from former adversaries in Europe, Sesame is meant to allow researchers to collaborate across the Middle East.

The governing council of Sesame is headed by a British physicist, Prof Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, a former director of Cern, which operates the Large Hadron Collider from Geneva in Switzerland.

Image caption,
Scientists have put aside political barriers in order to collaborate on the project

During a visit to the facility, in the hills 20 miles northwest of Amman, he told BBC News: "It is pretty remarkable but it's happened and it's because the scientific communities in these countries have pushed for this and ignored the political barriers.

"Science is a common language - if we can speak it together, possibly we can build bridges of trust which will help in other areas."

Sesame stands for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East. And it is also a reference to the famous phrase "open sesame", the secret command to open a treasure trove in the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

Despite immense political sensitivity, the project has already been opening new channels of communications so effectively that the prospect of the machine being commissioned is now a tangible possibility.

The most recent meetings of the "users" - the scientific teams who hope to make use of Sesame - and of the technical advisers and governing officials took place earlier this month in Jordan.

'Dare to believe'

The BBC was given exclusive access to the synchrotron construction site and to the gatherings - and the degree of harmony was striking.

Delegates from Cyprus and Turkey (which do not have diplomatic relations) and from Israel, Iran and Pakistan (the latter two having no relations with Israel) sat together, alongside Jordanians, Palestinians and Egyptians. Given the degree of tension at a political level, the atmosphere was amazingly calm and businesslike.

According to Prof Eliezer Rabinovici, a physicist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the project is "a beacon of hope for many people in the area who dare to believe" that life in the region can be improved.

Image caption,
The site is currently under construction, but the first science could begin as early as 2015

"We are having a rough period now - a very rough period - and it may become even rougher.

"But I think that as scientists, we have to look at the long range, and in the long range we see no conflict of interest between the people of Iran and the people of Israel."

His sentiments were echoed by one of the senior scientists from Iran, Prof Mahmoud Tabrizchi from Isfahan University, who told me: "Every scientist needs tools to work with and train his or her students but it costs a lot to buy instruments, especially good instruments. But this machine covers a large percentage of the needs of the scientists of this region.

"This is kind of helping each other to have a big machine to help everybody, the purpose of Sesame is to bring scientists to work together."

The next stage of construction is being funded with $5m each from Israel, Iran, Jordan and Turkey plus another $5m from the EU for Cern to provide the magnet system. Pakistan has agreed to provide $5m in kind.

That still leaves a $10m shortfall in funding to improve the "beamlines" - the parts of the synchrotron where research is actually carried out - and provide accommodation for visiting scientists.

Way forward

Synchrotrons work by accelerating electrons around a circular tube, during which excess energy is given off in the form of light - from X-rays to infrared - which is diverted into the beamlines. By focusing the intense light onto samples, the tiniest structures can be mapped in great detail.

The idea for Sesame got off the ground when a German synchrotron known as Bessy was being dismantled and a Stanford University professor, Herman Winick, suggested it should not be scrapped but shipped to the Middle East instead.

Prof Winick points to the role of synchrotrons in Brazil, South Korea and Taiwan in generating local scientific expertise and reversing the "brain drain" of talent and says a similar effect is possible in the Middle East.

Image caption,
Those involved hope Sesame could be a beacon for peace in the region

He told me that Sesame could already be judged a success simply because preparatory meetings over the past decade have brought together scientists from countries that would never normally meet.

"Even if Sesame does not produce an X-ray or produce research, it has done immense good in this region.

"That's exemplified by the users' meetings in which a hundred or more scientists from this region get together and meet."

That view is shared by many of the scientists taking part in a project seen as having a value far beyond science.

Dr Jamal Ghabboun, a Palestinian physicist from Bethlehem University, said he had never imagined that he could collaborate in this way.

"What we hope is that science will open the door to further understandings concerning other issues - we will begin with science and somehow we will open the doors that are closed for years or centuries."

Prof Zuheir El-Bayyari of Philadelphia University in Jordan described science "as a wonderful thing to collaborate on".

"With science we can have a message of peace, of being humans dealing with each other on this basis, to have the knowledge for the benefit of all civilisation and our world in general," he said.

Political challenges

For Maedeh Darzi, a young woman science graduate from Iran, the visit to Jordan was her first abroad and, as with many here, her first encounter with Israelis.

She said Sesame was "a modern technology which will help people around the Middle East to develop and improve their knowledge".

I asked Prof Roy Beck of Tel Aviv University how he felt sitting with Iranian scientists when their government had vowed to destroy his country.

"Well, Iranian scientists have not vowed to destroy me," he said. "I mean, Iranian and Palestinian and Pakistani scientists are my friends because they are scientists so we have a common ground. This is really the essence of what Sesame can bring to the region."

The project still faces technical challenges, on top of the constant threat of political breakdown or conflict forcing the key countries to pull out or cancel their funding.

Prof Llewellyn Smith admits that there are plenty of uncertainties ahead: "Certainly a real war would stop us in our tracks but we've got to be optimistic and keep going."

And despite the recent conflict involving Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza, there is no sign so far of any country withdrawing.

Prof Zehra Sayers of Sabanci University in Istanbul says Sesame is so valuable that it cannot be allowed to fail.

"Maybe it will not bring peace to the region, but it can bring one small line of communication to the people who live in this area," he said.

"This is why it has to work. We need those tiny thin fragile lines of communication."

'Open Sesame: science in the desert' will be on BBC Radio 4 tonight at 8pm