The SESAME synchrotron in Jordan is an ambitious scientific, political and social experiment — since way before it even started producing results. DW's Zulfikar Abbany spent a week in the Middle East to find out why.
Access barred: Palestinian scientists have yet to benefit from SESAME. Often their universities are too underresourced for them to propose projects that SESAME will accept.
Ask a physicist "what's a synchrotron?" ... and they'll call it a huge light bulb.
Synchrotrons let scientists see the smallest things — from material details in the Dead Sea Scrolls to living matter, water purity, disease, and universe-defining particles.
They are complex, ring-shaped machines that produce an intense beam of light. That light is used to illuminate things that scientists want to study, whether that's a physical material or a biological sample, for instance. And the stronger the beam of light, the sharper the image of the sample.
It's basically the best camera you ever had. To the power of a squillion.
There are synchrotrons around the world, with many in Europe and the USA, others in Asia-Pacific.
But there's only one in the whole of the Middle East.
It's called the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (or SESAME for short), and it's shining an intense light on the science than can and cannot be done amidst the politics of that region.
Science, and a dream of peace
After decades of dreaming, planning and building, the SESAME synchrotron in Allan, north of the Jordanian capital Amman, has recently started delivering scientific results.
It's doing what it set out to do — to attract scientists from around the region, whether they are from Israel, Jordan or Egypt, and to have them work together on quasi-neutral ground on science. And, ultimately, on peace.
Member states include Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. Observer countries are Brazil, China, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the USA.
For those scientists working in the region, it's just incredibly practical to have a synchrotron on your door step, as traveling long distances with fragile archeological samples can be a hair-raising ordeal.
With SESAME, you could theoretically jump in a car at dawn, do your "beamtime," and be back home in time for your dinner — the operative word being "theoretically," because Jordanian customs is on a whole other level of odd.
But theoretically… SESAME is a stone's throw away for scientists in the Middle East.
Then there's a wall, dividing people, politics, science, society (from the Israeli wall in Bethlehem).
Unless you're Palestinian.
No collaboration under occupation
If you're a Palestinian scientist from Bethlehem, Nablus or any other part of Israel under Palestinian authority, and you're driving with Palestinian plates, a simple commute can turn into days.
Roads close inexplicably from one minute to the next. You get held up at checkpoints or sent on a detour around three hills... when yesterday you took a five-minute short cut.
Or you may not get invited in the first place. If SESAME's scientific committee deems your proposal too weak. And with some Palestinian scientists coming from very weak universities that rely on 1950s equipment donated by the UK, getting rejected is a strong possibility.
It's a practical impediment all right. To date, no proposals from Palestinian researchers have been awarded anybeamtime.
SESAME's scientific director, Giorgio Paolucci, next to equipment donated by Germany's defunct BESSY I synchrotron
Then there's the political.
Scientists from the Weizmann Institute, the Hebrew University and others from Tel Aviv University say they are keen on collaboration.
But in Palestine, there's one line that rings out often:
"No collaboration under occupation."
When you hear that for the first time, it's like a mallet to the head.
There's silence. (Interrupted by Israeli fighter jets overhead.) And a sense of dumbfounded... well, dumbness.
Then, an "Oh. My. God."
Before those journalistic instincts kick in and you hear yourself blurting, "But surely…! But... erm…"
So they repeat the line: "No collaboration under occupation," and you're out.
The situation is so sensitive, we can't even tell you who said it first. Others said it too; and we'll quote them, but later, as this diary progresses.
The macadam road surface near Nablus in Palestine just stops — an almost invisible border between peace and instability
Seen (or heard) through the prism of common media coverage, you might think, "Oh, yeah, like, that makes sense. I mean, these are oppressed people, right? I get it."
And inside you let out a little cry of "Freedom!"
But upfront, in your face, staring into the eyes of Palestinian physicists, trained in France or the USA, now home as heads of department… and it's a different feeling altogether.
No standard model
SESAME is modeled on CERN, one of Europe's post-war peace projects. The idea there was to provide a neutral place for scientists to collaborate. CERN's canteen is renowned as a hub of cross-cultural interaction. And their science is top-notch. CERN detected the "elusive" Higgs boson — or God particle — in 2012.
You could also say CERN is SESAME's mentor. But the Middle East is not Europe.
In July, CERN organized a field trip for a group of science journalists from Europe and the USA, including this writer. We visited scientists in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nablus before stopping at SESAME.
DW reporter Zulfikar Abbany at the SESAME synchrotron in Jordan... trying not to fall while taking a photo
And some of the most enlightening moments were those that had very little to do with science, but things like farming, family life or standing on a road where the macadam just stops and that's a border between tolerance and a precarious kind of peace.
It was a week in the Middle East and we barely started to scratch the surface of why SESAME is such an ambitious project and why it has yet to succeed.
This is just the beginning.
Read more from Zulfikar Abbany's SESAME diary:
Postscript: This article was amended on September 25-26, 2019, to reflect some very valuable feedback from James Gillies at CERN on the science of synchrotrons. My thanks to James!