Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Science Beats the 'Language of War' in the Middle East

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Science Beats the 'Language of War' in the Middle East

Article excerpt

Sophie Cohen reports on a groundbreaking cross-border project that aims to unite region's nations

In Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, "sesame" is the magic password that opens a cave full of gold. In the Middle East today that same word unlocks treasures of an altogether different kind: world-class science, as well as tolerance and engagement, two words that practically shed gold dust over the region.

SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) is the name of the region's first synchrotron light source, one scheduled to be fully operational by the end of the year.

Synchrotrons, in which bunches of electrons are circulated near the speed of light until they emit radiation, have become indispensable to the study of matter from atoms to biological cells, in everything from archaeology to medicine. Four Nobel Prizes in Chemistry have been awarded to research employing them.

But perhaps the most groundbreaking experiment to take place within SESAME's walls, located about 20 miles from Jordan's capital Amman, will be the interaction of the scientists themselves: Iranians, Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Turks, Cypriots, Pakistanis and Bahrainis - all nationalities of SESAME's team.

The origins of the project lie in the ill-fated Oslo Peace Accords, a time of unprecedented hope for the Middle East when the late Sergio Fubini, one of the pioneers of string theory, and Eliezer Rabinovici, today an Israeli delegate to the SESAME Council and a vice-president of the Council of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern), decided that the time was ripe to explore Arab-Israeli scientific collaboration. Their venture, the Middle East Scientific Cooperation (MESC), slowly evolved into SESAME.

That collaboration received its first official support at a ceremony in the Sinai Peninsula in November 1995, just weeks after Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. While the official documents were being signed in the presence of several Nobel laureates and Middle Eastern dignitaries, an earthquake shook Mount Sinai. "It was a sign from above," jokes Rabinovici.

Remarkably, the spectre of politics has only rarely reared its head throughout SESAME's existence.

Early on, the question of how the Palestinian territories should be referred to within SESAME's constitution proved a sore point for several months. The issue fleetingly resurfaced in 2011 when Unesco, under whose auspices SESAME was officially established in 2002, granted Palestine full membership.

But such episodes have seldom arisen, insist participants, who maintain that an implicit understanding places politics to one side.

Herwig Schopper, a former director general of Cern who served as the president of SESAME's council between 2004 and 2008, says it is a "miracle that the government representatives from Israel and Iran, but also of Turkey and Cyprus, have adopted good relations, sitting there and working together very well".

Like many others drawn to the project, the idea that science could act as a bridge between the Middle East's warring nations fascinated Schopper. "I thought it was a beautiful idea to repeat what has been done in Cern after the last world war, where Cern I think has contributed very much to bringing together European states," he says.

Such a precedent resonates for many in the project, such as Egypt's long-serving SESAME representative Tarek Hussein, professor of nuclear and high energy physics at Cairo University, who believes that science and technology "can stop the language of war among the states of the Middle East". …

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