At Mideast's Particle Accelerator, Israeli and Iranian Scientists Rub Shoulders

Decades in the making, the SESAME particle accelerator project – ‘a kind of giant x-ray machine,’ says the Israeli scientist who’s helped to spearhead it – is being inaugurated in Jordan

Scientists at the SESAME project
Szeberenyi, Agnes / CERN

Two decades after the idea first arose, a venue for scientific cooperation in the Middle East was formally inaugurated in Jordan on Tuesday – the SESAME particle accelerator.

The idea was born in the mid-1990s, in the aftermath of Israel’s Oslo Accords with the Palestinians and its peace treaty with Jordan. The project’s board includes scientists from Israel, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey; two of those countries, Iran and Pakistan, have no diplomatic relations with Israel.

An eclectic mix filled the reception tent at the launch of the regional particle accelerator. Scientists, researchers, project planners and facility staff hailing from Switzerland and Germany were joined by the Middle East researchers at SESAME, the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East.

"In the name of the Islamic Republic of Iran, we invite you to work with us, to share in the scientific achievements and to advance science in the Middle East," said the Iranian ambassador in Amman, Mojtaba Ferdosipour. The ambassador added. "Fulfilling the vision of SESAME is an important achievement, which opens an opportunity for regional cooperation."

The five Iranian scientists present were wary of speaking to the Israeli media or to reveal any tie they have with Israeli researchers.

"There was never such a facility in the region until now, and this project is a scientific bridge between countries," said Nasher Sawadi, a Jordanian physicist who plans to commence an experiment this summer with Farouq Al-Omari. Over 550 research requests to use the facility have been submitted to date.

Peretz Vazan, the director general of the Science, Technology and Space Ministry, said: We hope to strengthen neighborly relations through regional cooperation, in such a way that scientific cooperation will spill over to other fields. We have learned from science that you can bring progress through relationships and alliances, and by seeking opportunities with our neighbors to improve our region and be prepared for 21st century challenges.

One of the project's backers, Prof. Dincer Ulku of Turkey, added: "We don't mix politics with science, and the work on establishing the facility was not influenced by political issues. I believe that a person needs to be good, no matter where he comes from."

Princess Sumaya bint Hassan said that Jordan is "devoted to this wonderful project, and is committed to equality among the participants – regardless of race and religion. She noted the kingdom wants "to enable scientific research to thrive and flower." She stated: "Since has the potential to shine a light on the region and to bring a better life to everyone. Personally, it was my pleasure to see the development of SESAME, which serves as an example for the diplomacy of science." The princess noted that Jordan is a partner in other initiatives under the slogan "science for peace," and that science contributes to regional dialogue.

In addition, the European Union and numerous individual countries have observer status on the project: Brazil, China, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The accelerator, which actually began operating in late 2016, is located near Jordan’s Al-Balqa University, just 30 kilometers from the Allenby Bridge border crossing into Israel. 

SESAME will serve as a venue for a wide variety of scientific research. Though modeled after the CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland, it will operate differently and serve a completely different function: SESAME won’t accelerate particles to the same speeds as CERN does, nor will it collide particles to see what happens. Indeed, SESAME's focus is the radiation, primarily the x-rays, emitted when particles accelerate in a circle.

“It’s a kind of giant x-ray machine, but much better,” said Eliezer Rabinovici, a physics professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who serves as vice president of SESAME and chairs the high-energy physics committee of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. “It helps us discover the properties of materials, and it’s suitable for experiments in many fields.”

The radiation that is emitted from the facility is used in fields as varied as archaeology, physics, life sciences, pharmacology, nanotechnology and environmental science.

“Using a facility like this, for instance, researchers managed to decode a papyrus several thousand years old that was found in Crete; touching it would have caused it to crumble,” Rabinovici explained. “[Israeli] Nobel Prize laureate Prof. Ada Yonath managed to unravel the structure of the ribosome through these same rays.”

The x-ray machine that is found in hospitals, he added, "is built on a wavelength suitable for seeing bones. Here, we have the ability to see much smaller structures.”

Such a capability is important both for medicine and engineering, since nowadays, many researchers in both fields need a resolution at the level of nanometers. Last April, for instance, American researchers at a similar facility in California discovered new information about the structure of proteins that affect blood pressure, which could help in developing new medications.

There are currently 60 similar accelerators worldwide. Most are second-generation facilities, but SESAME is more advanced: It’s generation 2.5, similar to the synchrotrons in Canada and Australia. It’s also the only synchrotron in the Middle East.

“Precisely because the particle accelerator is so relevant and useful to so many scientific fields, we thought this venture was extremely suitable to regional cooperation,” said Rabinovici.

In CERN's corridors

The idea for SESAME was born in the corridors of CERN. Rabinovici and an Italian colleague, Sergio Fubini, were among its initiators.

“Fubini turned to me in the hallway at CERN and told me this was the time to test what he called ‘your idealism’ – referring to my ideas about launching joint Arab-Israeli scientific projects,” Rabinovici recalled. Together with other leading scientists, they eventually formed the Middle Eastern Science Committee, with the idea of forging scientific relations in the region.

Rabinovici credits former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak with making a political decision that allowed scientific cooperation with Israel to proceed. In November 1995, the scientists held a meeting in a Bedouin tent in Dahab, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula; this was just shortly after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“The meeting opened with a moment of silence, at the request of Prof. Venice Gouda, who was in charge Egypt’s higher education system,” Rabinovici said. “We honored those who fought for peace. There were about 100 scientists there, young and old – Egyptians, Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians and Moroccans from the region, and outstanding researchers from around the world.”

Over the next two decades, SESAME ran into plenty of snags due to diplomatic tensions, geopolitical changes and terror attacks. But a key turning point occurred in the late 1990s, when the venture was given a German synchrotron that became the basis on which SESAME’s accelerator was built. To date, $90 million has been invested in the endeavor.

Rabinovici believes the road to dialogue runs through science: “Science is a universal language that immediately breaks down barriers. Scientists know how to work together and acquire professional esteem, so many veils that cover the eyes simply disappear, and then you begin to see the human being. It’s a bridge to communication and understanding.

“I think we scientists have the privilege of working on what interests us,” he added. “We’re curious to know how nature works, and we have the privilege of having society support us. So if we have an opportunity, we’re happy to give something back.”