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 located in Allan, north of the Jordanian capital, Amman.
Science, and a dream of peace
It's taken decades of dreaming, planning and building. But the SESAME synchrotron has just started shining an intense light on the science than can — and cannot — be done amidst the politics of the Middle East.
It is doing what it set out to do — to attract scientists from around the region, whether they're from Israel, Jordan, Egypt or elsewhere, and have them work together on quasi-neutral ground. And, ultimately, on peace.
Above all, SESAME is delivering scientific results.
On their doorstep
SESAME's member states include Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey.
And already it's proved incredibly practical for scientists to have a synchrotron on their door step. Traveling long distances with fragile archeological samples to facilities farther afield 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 many scientists working in the Middle East.
Unless they'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 a thing of days.
Roads close inexplicably from one minute to the next. You get held up at checkpoints or sent on detours around three hills... when yesterday you were allowed to take a five-minute short cut.
And that's just to get to your university laboratory. Crossing borders to work at a foreign synchrotron is on another level.
But then if you're Palestinian, you may not get invited in the first place. That is, 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 that was donated by the UK, getting rejected is a strong possibility.
At time of writing, no proposals from Palestinian researchers have been awarded beamtime at SESAME.
During a week-long tour, we spoke to scientists at the Weizmann Institute, and others from the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University. They all said they were keen on collaboration. There was a sense of apprehension, but also a sense of freedom that allowed them to give collaboration a go.
Meanwhile, in Palestine, there were other forces at work, and one line that rings out from campus to campus:
"No collaboration under occupation."
When you hear that for the first time, it's like a mallet to the head.
There's silence. (Perhaps only interrupted by the sound of Israeli fighter jets overhead.) And then a sense of dumbfounded... well, dumbness.
Then, an "Oh. My. God."
A moment later, those old journalistic instincts kick in and you hear yourself blurting, "Yes, but surely…! I mean... erm…"
So, they repeat the line: "No collaboration under occupation. No collaboration under occupation."
That's your three strikes and you're out.
The situation is so sensitive, I can't even tell you who said it first. They won't let me. Others said it, too; and I'll quote them, but later, as this diary progresses, and try to explain why they said it.
But for now, all I'll say is that those four words left me confused.
Through the prism of our common, Western 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 back home as heads of their departments… and it's a different feeling altogether. Especially when you consider what SESAME is trying to achieve.
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.
It's created fertile ground for science. And the science is top-notch. Among CERN's biggest achievements is its detection of the "elusive" Higgs boson — or God particle — in 2012. That may or may not mean much to you, either way is fine. The Higgs boson is not the sort of thing you need to think about every day. But, then heck, without CERN we probably wouldn't have the World Wide Web as we know it. And that's got to mean something to everyone.
But the Middle East is not Europe. And SESAME is not CERN.
Still, it's a good thing that SESAME has CERN at its side, like a big brother, advocate or mentor.
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, north of Amman.
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 but 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.
That was part one of Zulfikar Abbany's SESAME diary. Read more here:
— SESAME Field Trip: Reality checks in Jerusalem (part two)
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!