2017-05-08 14:41:04
A Light for Science, and Cooperation, in the Middle East

14:41, May 08 107 0

In what they hope will be a spark of light in years of darkness, a group of scientists circulated a beam of electrons around a ring in Allan, Jordan, in January.

The group, called Sesame, is made up of physicists from several countries that rarely talk to one another — Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan — and also from the Palestinian Authority, but whose scientists are determined to collaborate.

Chosen for its resonance in the region’s culture, the name Sesame now works as an acronym for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East. The Sesame Institute is set to open its doors on May 16, in a ceremony to be attended by King Abdullah II of Jordan.

The heart of the new institute will be a kind of particle accelerator known as a synchrotron, speeding electrons around. The goal is not to collide the electrons or anything else in search of new forces or particles of nature, as at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider where the famous, or infamous, Higgs boson was found five years ago. Rather, the goal is to make them dance and emit powerful beams of radiation — so-called synchrotron light — that can be used to study the properties of materials ranging from exotic semiconductors to viruses.

There are about 60 such light sources in the world, which have been become increasingly valuable as tools in medicine and engineering. In April, for example, scientists using X-rays from a light source at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California discovered new details about the structure of proteins that regulate blood pressure, raising the possibility of better treatments for hypertension.

Sesame, in short, could bring world-class modern physics to a region of the world lacking much in the way of facilities or research money, its proponents say. “Somebody with a bright idea could get a Nobel with this,” said Christopher Llewellyn Smith, an Oxford University physics professor and president of the Sesame Council, the governing body of the project.

But perhaps that might be the least of it, according to Eliezer Rabinovici, a theoretical physicist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who has been pursuing a dream of Arab-Israeli cooperation, walking a political and technical tightrope past wars, treaties, negotiations, ultimatums, assassinations and other crises with his friends and collaborators for more than 20 years.

This is the story of an impossible dream, a journey to what Dr. Rabinovici calls a parallel universe of peace and cooperation in the Middle East. “We call it the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said recently.

Sesame is following a path blazed by CERN, which was birthed by Unesco with the aims of reviving European science after World War II and fostering a spirit of cooperation on the Continent.

The only difference today, Dr. Llewellyn Smith noted, is that in Europe hostilities had already ended, while in the Middle East they are still very much alive.

Dr. Rabinovici traced the origins of Sesame to the 1993 Oslo Accords, when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shook hands in front of President Bill Clinton.

At the time he was working at CERN. A short while later, he recalled, an Italian colleague, Sergio Fubini, walked into his office and told him it was time to put his “naïve idealism” to the test.

Science is a natural way to build bridges between cultures and nations, Dr. Rabinovici said, because of its common language.

He and Dr. Fubini went on to create a self-appointed Middle Eastern Science Committee, which in turn led to a meeting in November 1995 in a big red tent at Dahab, Egypt, in the Sinai Desert near the Red Sea, attended by scientists from around the Middle East and beyond. They escaped uninjured from a 6.9-magnitude earthquake. “We saw Mount Sinai shake,” Dr. Rabinovici said.

In another telling moment, the Egyptian minister of scientific research Venice Gouda, asked everyone to stand for a moment of silence in honor of Mr. Rabin, who had been assassinated just two weeks before.

“The silence echoes in my ears still today,” Dr. Rabinovici said.

The group got a mission when German scientists offered it an old accelerator known as Bessy, that had served as a light source in Berlin and was being replaced after the country was reunified.

While the group was hesitant to accept such a relic because it might not attract first-class research, “it was clear that one has to take it because you cannot build a coalition of Arabs and Israelis around something which is air,” Dr. Rabinovici said.

Bessy was dismantled and shipped in boxes to the Jordanian desert, which had been chosen as the site for what was now called Sesame. “Jordan was the site. It was where everybody could come,” he said.

There, plans evolved. Bessy would become the booster, or first stage, of a newer, more powerful synchrotron propelling electrons to energies of 2.5 billion electron volts. (By comparison, the protons in the Large Hadron Collider are bumped to energies of about seven trillion electron volts.)

The idea behind synchrotron light sources is to turn what was once a liability and wasted energy into a scientific tool. As charged particles, in this case electrons, are accelerated around an electromagnetic racetrack in machines like the Large Hadron Collider, they radiate energy, so-called synchrotron radiation. The output of the machine can be tuned by inserting arrays of magnets called wigglers and undulators to make the electrons dance and produce very powerful pencil beams of any type of light.

How these beams are reflected or absorbed by the target materials can reveal the arrangements and shapes of molecules the way the double helix of DNA was revealed by X-ray photographs taken by Rosalind Franklin back in the 1950s.

As built, Sesame has room for seven different such beams, providing energy from X-rays to infrared, or heat radiation, to experiments.

When it opens for business, however, there will be only two.

The first is an X-ray beam that will be used, among other things, to study pollution in the Jordan Valley, by ascertaining the amounts of metals like chromium and zinc in soil samples.

Another beam will supply infrared waves for an infrared microscope that will employ the same principles as the night-vision goggles worn by soldiers or snipers to study, say, cancer cells and other biological tissues.

A third beam planned for the end of the year will supply X-rays for crystallography, the study of the structures of proteins and viruses.

The group has already received 55 proposals for the use of those beams — more than they can accept, Dr. Llewellyn Smith said.

To the scientists, money has been as big a problem as politics. Dr. Rabinovici said, “It’s a miracle that we have all these people together — that’s nice. But ultimately this is going to be decided by the quality of the science. And this is where we need help.”

“We are working on a shoestring budget,” he added. “Good science costs money.”

In all, about $90 million has gone into getting the project going so far, according to Dr. Llewellyn Smith. That includes $5 million apiece pledged by Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Iran and another grant of 5 million euros from the European Union, which enabled CERN to help build the magnets and supervise construction of the Sesame machine.

“I saw that crew of Europeans working on it, and they were excited. You could see it in their eyes; their eyes were shining,” Dr. Rabinovici said. The latest piece of largess was a $7 million grant from Jordan for a solar power plant, which will make Sesame the first accelerator in the world powered by renewable energy.

One likely contributor to the cause is missing — the United States — much to the chagrin of many scientists and bureaucrats.

Franklin Orr, under secretary for science and energy in the Department of Energy during the Obama administration, and now a professor at Stanford, said the administration had tried to find funding.

“It didn’t jell, we didn’t have a source of money,” he said. The budget issues are not likely to get easier, he added. “Getting an appropriation through Congress would be tricky at best.”

As with CERN, members pay dues based on the size of their economies for operating expenses estimated to be somewhat less than $6 million a year.

Originally formed through Unesco, the nine Sesame members each hold two seats, typically a scientist and a diplomat, on its council, which is led by Dr. Llewellyn Smith. The council appoints a director, presently Khaled Toukan, who is also head of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission.

The project is not immune to the shadows of history. In 2010 a wave of attacks on Iranian scientists allegedly linked to Iran’s nuclear weapons program generated headlines around the world. Two who were assassinated had connections to Sesame: Masoud Alimohammadi, a professor at Tehran University and delegate to the Sesame Council, and Majid Shahriari, a nuclear engineer with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

Iran subsequently arrested and executed a man named Majid Jamali Fashi who confessed that he had been trained by Mossad, the Israeli secret service, to kill Dr. Alimohammadi.

Neither Dr. Rabinovici, who said he had met Dr. Alimohammadi once, nor Dr. Llewellyn Smith said they could see any connection between Sesame and the killings. The Sesame Council condemned the murders, insisting that its project had no military connections.

At present Sesame consists of about 50 scientists and technicians working in a building surrounded by a secure cyclone fence. Italy is building a hostel that will provide a place for visitors to stay and include that key ingredient of scientific life, a cafeteria. Accidental encounters and gossip glommed over lunch or coffee loom large in the mythology of scientific discovery.

In that regard, behind its secure fence, Sesame will be no different than any lab in the world, Dr. Llewellyn Smith said. “Working 20 hours a day and meeting in the cafeteria, that’s where a lot of science and discussion happens.”

As a theoretical string theorist Dr. Rabinovici won’t be found in the cafeteria or manning a beam line this summer; indeed he professed ignorance of the details of how they work. So why, he was asked over tea during a visit to The New York Times recently, has he been doing this?

The answer, of course, comes from string theory, where, he explained, it often (and controversially) comes out that there are many possible universes. “I must say that personally, I always wanted to visit some of these other universes, just to see how things are there.”

So with the Sesame project, he went on, “I actually got to live in a universe where Arabs, Israelis, Iranians, Pakistanies work together for the same cause for their own people, for humanity. And that definitely feels good.”

It is too grandiose, he said, to call Sesame a beacon of hope, “but we have shown a way.”