SESAME Field Trip: Models of science and society | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 19.09.2019
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Conflicting Perspectives

SESAME Field Trip: Models of science and society

Traveling through Jerusalem and the West Bank to Jordan, DW's Zulfikar Abbany saw science clash with politics and society. This is part three of his diary.

(Find Part 1 of Zulfikar Abbany's SESAME Field Trip diary here: A rocky road to science and diplomacy in the Middle East. And Part 2 here: Reality checks in Jerusalem)  

We were seven science journalists in the Middle East, traveling through Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nablus on our way to a synchrotron called SESAME in Allan, Jordan.

Visiting laboratories, talking to scientists.

What — as the saying goes — could possibly go wrong? Nothing. Until the scientists stop talking. It's the worst.

SESAME is to science what the EU is to Europe: A peace project to bring nations and people together. But, as we discovered, it may just as easily divide them.  

But more on that later.

The day before today

Our first day in Jerusalem ended with a guided stroll through the city.

The historic Jerusalem International YMCA, located opposite the King David Hotel (DW/Z. Abbany)

One street, two worlds: The historic Jerusalem International YMCA is located directly opposite another historic monument, the King David Hotel

We walked to a historic YMCA opposite an equally historic King David Hotel. We spoke about Jewish customs, how certain forms of Jewish dress "lock you into a culture and lock others out," and about youthful orthodox indiscretions, like getting Gentiles to buy you illicit cheese and bacon burgers at that American chain when its first Israeli branch opened in the 80s…

One of our group, American journalist Alan Boyle, read an Israeli poem, ostensibly about a man and boy, as we stood facing the Old City wall. Only just did we hold back tears. 

The Old City Wall in Jerusalem, Israel (DW/Z. Abbany)

Historic divisions in Jerusalem between the old and the new cities

And then at dinner, an intriguing conversation about desalinated water and how some parts of the country are "probably unaware that their entire water supply is desalinated" and that they probably don't know that it's "potentially unhealthy."  

Those quotes above are intentionally unattributed. The deeper we got into the field trip, we realized we'd have to protect both innocent and guilty.

But take a look at the CIA's World Factbook on Israel.

Under an entry "drinking water source" you'll read that water is 100 percent "improved" for both urban and rural populations.

What the CIA means exactly by "improved" is unclear.

Infographic Map of Israel (DW)

And — as we learned in Bethlehem and Nablus — debatable.

You could base a fair bit of scientific work on that very question. And you could conduct that science at a synchrotron like SESAME, using the super-high-resolution imagery it affords to analyze a water sample's properties — its minerals, impurities.

Read more: Right-wing activists vandalize EU mission in Israel

If only the two peoples would collaborate.

Some Palestinians are reluctant to support what they say would be a "normalization" project — an empty political gesture to give the appearance of peace.

Watch video 05:37

Accelerating particles for peace

"We can cooperate on daily issues, like crossing checkpoints or getting permission to go… wherever. If we don't, it's like we're in prison," said Sameer Shadeed, an associate professor at An-Najah University.

"But we cannot collaborate on science," he continued. "To discuss the problems we face here in Palestine, like the water shortage, to research solutions with the occupier — the one who, in my opinion, created the problem — no."  

Polite conversation

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Because the water in Jerusalem was just fine.

Dr. Ami Citri in his lab at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem (DW/Z. Abbany)

Hebrew University is a vision of modernity, and though scientists always like more, Dr. Ami Citri (center) has pretty much all the gear he needs

And the conversation polite.

As we waited for a roundtable conversation to begin at the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities on day two, Professor Roy Beck and assistant professor Dr. Brian Rosen, both of Tel Aviv University, debated their version of an American East-West divide.

Beck: People are nice in the West.

(He'd just been chatting about working in California. It was a throwaway line.)

Rosen (interjects): Nicer.

Beck: Sorry, what?

Rosen: Nice-ER.

Beck: Oh.

Rosen: But Israelis are more at home in New York.

Beck: No way.

Watch video 12:07

Orthodox Jewish Women Rocking New York

This went on for a while and I probably shouldn't have taken notes, but I did, so that's the sum of it. And it went on. At some point, Beck said "They're all Mormons in Utah" and Rosen responded, "Most."

Beck: Sorry, what?

Rosen (repeats): Most.

The object of my telling this tale is not to ridicule the two scientists. They were both hospitable and generous, and knowledgeable in ways beyond my reach.

But the scene does illustrate how differentiated seemingly similar people see the world. And it's not just the fact that they see differences, but also the fact that they feel at ease to discuss them.

Because frankly, over on "the other side," there were no such casual chats. In Palestine, it was all about the struggle.

Read more: Artificial intelligence creates perfumes without being able to smell them

Dr. Nadav Katz (right) and colleague in one of their laser labs at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem (DW/Z. Abbany)

Talking machines: Dr. Nadav Katz (right) and his colleagues at Hebrew University have labs and lasers that allow them to do world-class research

Fortunately, Beck and Rosen are aware of the complexities of the situation.

"For three or four years, I interacted and worked with several Iranian scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign," said Rosen, who is one of the first Israelis to get beamtime at SESAME.

"They were extremely brilliant and extremely nice, and we had a lot of positive exchange. When I turned to them, having come to Israel, and asked whether they wanted to collaborate… Erm," he paused, searching.

He continued. "They still have their families in Iran and they're worried that if they have a joint publication with an Israeli researcher… what that could mean for them. It's a very sad state of affairs."

Café collaboration

SESAME could change that. Much like CERN, the international group behind SESAME hopes to create a social environment at the facility where scientists from all backgrounds will get talking.

Lasershield eye protection in a quantum laboratory at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem (DW/Z. Abbany)

Neatly stacked eye protection at one of the Israeli laser laboratories we visited; a short drive away, Palestinian scientist in Bethlehem don't have lasers.

"I count on running high quality science and then meeting people from Pakistan and Iran in the cafeteria, and exchanging about culture, lifestyle, and science," said Rosen. "I hope that the major barrier to collaboration I encountered with my friends in Illinois will not be there. Because if the scientists have those same fears, I'm not sure that they will be at SESAME in the first place."

It's interesting to note that none of Rosen's examples included Palestinian scientists. In the scheme of those who have proclaimed themselves enemies of Israel, Pakistan and Iran both rank high. So, they may have simply been the first to come to his mind.

Read more: Europe urges Iran to cooperate with UN nuclear watchdog

But the Palestinians are the Israelis' closest neighbors. So, there's a lot of light footwork yet to be done.

Real crazy

"At the start, most people said, "This cannot be done. How can you sit together with Iranians and Pakistanis, Turkish and Cypriots, all making decisions together?" People said it was impossible," Beck told me when we spoke.

Commemorative flag calling on Christian, Muslim, Jewish children to shoot for the stars. At the Jerusalem International YMCA, Israel (DW/Z. Abbany)

Commemorative flag calling on Christian, Muslim, Jewish children to "shoot for the stars" — at the entrance to Jerusalem International YMCA, Israel

Beck's been involved with SESAME for about eight years and has served as Vice Chair of its Users' Committee (SUC).

Over the last two decades or so, he says, he and his colleagues have learned that synchrotrons can be used to solve mysteries in chemistry, biology, archeology or materials science. "So, the people who use such facilities are by nature open-minded, because they're integrating their science with a different kind of science."

Watch video 01:30

Israeli space mission ends with crash landing on moon

"We have scientific paper[s] coming out of the facility, and I know it sounds optimistic and smells good and all, but it's reality," said Beck. "Three years ago, I would have told you it was a dream. Today, it's not just crazy ideas from crazy scientists."

You may feel, as I do, that Beck meant to add "anymore" at the end of that sentence. As in, "It started as a crazy idea, but it isn't crazy anymore."

But, then, why should crazy be unrealistic? Don't you sometimes have to open your mind and let craziness creep in?

Unknown territory

Our time in Jerusalem was up, but we were buzzing. We had met a host of intriguing people and talked about all kinds of things. Things were going well.

Panorama over the rooftops of Jerusalem, Israel (DW/Z. Abbany)

Goodbye, Jerusalem: Over the rooftops, the city looks like any other

Naama Shilony, the academy's director of public relations, and I even hugged as we said goodbye — we'd chatted long the previous night about our memories of growing up, North London, Kibbutz, books by Hanif Kureishi. It was an all-round, warm experience.

It was only when Naama wished us "good luck in the West Bank" (or words to that effect), that the breeze turned cold, and I began to wonder where we were headed.

No one had felt the need to wish us luck as we entered Jerusalem.

As her words lingered, the West Bank sounded so distant. As distant as Jerusalem is for many, many Palestinians. Even for those who can see it, just there. A short, 40-minute drive away.

We got into cars and off we went.

Check back for more from Zulfikar Abbany's SESAME diary.

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