Science for Peace

The SESAME project seeks to pry open a treasure chest of nature’s secrets with powerful light beams.

The SESAME team in Jordan (photo credit: SESAME)
The SESAME team in Jordan
(photo credit: SESAME)
Three physicists‒ an Israeli, an Iranian and a Turk – walk into a bar. The bartender asks, “What’ll you have?” The Israeli says, “We’ll have a SESAME. Just one. Supermodern. We’ll share it.”
This is not the start of a bad joke. It is rather a true, though improbable, miracle.
SESAME stands for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications for the Middle East − a circular beam of highspeed electrons that generates bright ultraviolet and X-ray light, a kind of powerful microscope great for unlocking the structure of molecules.
On May 16, the synchrotron, located in Al-Salt, Jordan, a small city 19 miles northwest of Amman, was officially opened by Jordan’s King Abdullah, though it had actually begun operations at the end of last year.
The modern, advanced synchrotron is the only one of its kind in the Middle East.
In the Arab folktale “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” the words “Open Sesame” open a cave of treasures. The SESAME project aspires to pry open a treasure house of nature’s secrets with powerful light beams. It took more than 20 years to come to fruition. As Kareem Shaheen said in The Guardian, “It’s a miracle it got off the ground.”
SESAME’s members are Iran, Pakistan, Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Bahrain. Iran and Pakistan do not recognize Israel, and Turkey does not recognize Cyprus. The others? Well, their leaders don’t like each other very much either. But the physicists from these countries are bound together by the powerful glue of scientific curiosity that is far stronger than the repulsion of politics.
When they meet, they talk science, not politics.
This is the story of how it happened, told by Hebrew University Prof. Eliezer Rabinovici.
Rabinovici is a well-known theoretical physicist specializing in string theory, a unified description of gravity and particle physics that describes an enormous landscape of alternate universes – highly relevant for those seeking a universe of peace and cooperation in the fractious Middle East.
Our story begins with CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire), established in 1954, a European research organization that runs the world’s biggest particle accelerator. CERN’s goal, brilliantly achieved, was to help heal Europe and European science after World War II. Israel is its only non-European full member.
Rabinovici is vice-president of the CERN Council.
SESAME started after the Oslo Accords, a set of agreements negotiated in Norway between Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed in 1993 in Washington (Oslo I) and in 1995 in Taba, Egypt (Oslo II).
Rabinovici recounts, “My close friend and collaborator Prof. Sergio Fubini told me it could now be the time to test ‘your idealism’ – my ideas on future joint Arab-Israeli scientific projects. At CERN, we founded MESC (the Middle Eastern Science Committee) to forge meaningful scientific contacts in the region.” Abdus Salam, a Pakistani and the first Muslim to win a Nobel Prize in science, lent his support.
In late November 1995, a high-quality scientific meeting was convened in a large Beduin tent in Dahab, Sinai, shortly after prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.
Rabinovici recalls the moving moment of silence for Rabin proposed at the time by the Egyptian higher education minister.
“It seemed like we were following some over-the-top Hollywood script,” Rabinovici recalls. “We survived with no casualties a 6.9-magnitude earthquake.”
There were more such tests for SESAME.
He recalls, “The roof [of the SESAME building in Jordan] collapsed in December 2013 under piles of snow resulting from a highly irregular storm.” The roof was soon repaired.
Another, metaphorical roof caved in, as well. According to The Washington Post, “SESAME was roiled in 2010 when two Iranian scientists with connections to the project were killed in separate incidents.
This was part of several attacks on Iranian scientists perceived to have connections to Iran’s nuclear program. The government in Tehran accused Israel and the US of involvement in the attacks, which both countries denied.”
Tensions also flared in 2010, The Washington Post recounts, after Israeli commandos seized a Turkish-owned ship, the Mavi Marmara, which was carrying aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
“We were on the verge of withering away,” Khaled Toukan, chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission and a SESAME leader, observed. “But we made it.”
The idea to build a light source was attractive, “thanks to the rich diversity of fields of science that can make use of such a facility,” Rabinovici said. Progress was slow – but that was a virtue. “It gave us time to build up a significant community of potential users.”
The creative use of junk helped, too. In 1997, Stanford physicist Herman Winick heard that Germany was about to discard an old obsolete particle accelerator named BESSY I. Why not give it to SESAME? Parts of BESSY were indeed used, though the SESAME device itself was new and modern, vital for attracting high-level researchers.
Winick explained, “As particles fly around the synchrotron loop, they emit extremely intense beams of X-rays, as well as ultraviolet and infrared radiation… if we shine X-ray beams onto material, we can see things in more detail than we can with visible light.”
Scientists note that the discovery of the double-helix shape of DNA, a crucial breakthrough, was made with X-rays – but a million times weaker than those SESAME generates.
The SESAME council chose Jordan as the site, and Jordan, a relatively poor country, offered $7 million to the SESAME project.
As one of two Arab countries that signed peace agreements with Israel, Jordan was a perfect location.
Rabinovici explained that the German BESSY machine formed a nucleus of those persons around which to build the team that would run SESAME. UNESCO also played a constructive role in the project’s early stages.
“The host building was constructed,” Rabinovici recounts, “but it remained essentially empty. The one-time large cost needed to construct a new [synchrotron] machine was outside the budget parameters of most of the members… I observed that the morale of the local SESAME staff was in steady decline; in my opinion, the project was in quite some danger.”
Rabinovici approached Israel’s Finance Ministry, which is historically tightfisted.
The Higher Education Budget and Planning Committee agreed to contribute, if other countries joined them. “Each member of the unlikely coalition consisting of Iran, Israel, Jordan and Turkey pledged an extra $5m.
for the project,” he explained. Iran claimed to recognize its commitment but said it could not pay because of sanctions; at the end of last year Iran paid $200,000.
The European Union kicked in €5m., adding to an earlier contribution of €3m. As a result, Rabinovici says, “SESAME has, barring negative geopolitical events, crossed the point of no return.”
It is significant that the United States has not contributed a single dime to the project, despite American efforts to mediate a Middle East peace agreement.
Rabinovici recounts that SESAME is preparing two “beam lines” (light sources) to be ready this year. “There have been 55 applications for experiments so far,” he says.
I could not resist asking him a rather provocative question.
“Prof. Rabinovici, you are an expert on string theory, which in popular accounts posits alternate universes. You told The New York Times, perhaps tongue in cheek, that you might want to visit one of these universes. One such universe could be a world in which scientists, trained in rigorous logic and research, fashion win-win peace agreements to end conflicts in place of our failed and failing politicians.”
“Can you envision such a universe?” I asked him.
“That is the whole point,” he said. “For over 20 years I have been living in such a universe, so I know it can exist! The proof? We managed to build together the administrative structure, as well as have a working world-class light source. We are not competing with politicians; we have shown that for our limited case it can be done and we can stick together for over two decades.
“The people of the region have in them the capability to work together for a common cause,” Rabinovici said. “The very process of building SESAME has become a beacon of hope to many in our region. My dream is that work worthy of a Nobel Prize will be performed at SESAME by a joint effort of scientists from my region.”
The writer is senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at