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Mid-East particle accelerator is ‘lighthouse’ for mutual understanding – co-founder

Prof. Eliezer Rabinovici helped to set up SESAME so researchers in the Middle East could access a particle accelerator closer to home.

The first Middle East particle accelerator – officially opened on 16 May – sets an example for young researchers on how a small group of people can build bridges across the troubled region, according to one of the original founders of the project, Professor Eliezer Rabinovici from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, who also holds the Louis Michel Chair at France’s Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques.

What does the start of the SESAME particle accelerator in Jordan mean for science in the Middle East?

‘For many of the scientists in the region it is very difficult to get time on the top-of-the-line machines (particle accelerators) like those in Italy, France, the UK and Germany for two reasons. First, because their countries are in most cases not members, or associate members, of those organisations, and second because it is very, very competitive. So by having a regional machine, they have now new opportunities and these are opportunities which would enable them to train their students better and do their own research on a world-class machine.’

You are a theoretical physicist interested in string theory. What motivated you to get involved in setting up a particle accelerator that will be used as a light source to examine the structure of biological molecules?

‘Since I was a child, as an Israeli … our teachers were those who had survived the Holocaust. We were taught that our role was to contribute for the benefit of our country, our people and humanity. And definitely to be able to contribute for the wellbeing of our region.

‘In my field of high-energy physics, because our field requires large resources, we have learned to collaborate. I was fortunate to be allowed by society to participate in my curiosity-driven research. I feel it is our duty to try and give back to society when we can. One of the things we can do in my region is try to use science as a bridge for understanding.’

In SESAME, you have collaborations between countries that have had very problematic relationships. What were those collaborations like?

‘Politics very rarely entered into our discussions. There were three times over the 20 years (it took to set up SESAME) where I remember the politics attempted to enter, and the SESAME Council adopted a resolution that it will not debate or issue statements on any political issues. And I think this enabled us to communicate more as human beings.’

Could you say what the three times were?

No. I can say that one was in Paris, one was in Amman (Jordan) and one was in Cairo, but it had nothing to do with the Egyptians. So in three places there was a danger that politics threatened the fibre of SESAME, but we overcame it, and I hope we became stronger by overcoming it.’

We hear this phrase science diplomacy. How has SESAME contributed to science diplomacy in the Middle East?

‘We have shown that you can persist and stick together for a common cause for over two decades. And I think that is a major contribution and can serve as an inspiration for other people who also would like in one way or another to manifest their will to build bridges.’

How can SESAME help these people who want to build bridges, and what kinds of bridges will they build?

‘First of all SESAME reached a decision that any activity in what we call the SESAME spirit we welcome to take place at SESAME. So things which are totally not related to light-source research but which have in them the idea of building bridges in the region are most welcome to hold activities at SESAME.

‘What other activities? I think this one we will have to leave to people which will come after us. I think we are providing an arena.’

‘I think that what the younger generation can take from us is that a group of dedicated, idealistic people can sometimes make a small dent.’

Professor Eliezer Rabinovici, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

What’s next for SESAME?

‘My real goal is that research worthy of the Nobel Prize will be done at this place. This will require both improving the machine, and upgrading and increasing the number of beamlines so that more scientists can get involved. These are the two directions.’

What difference has SESAME made for Middle East governments, what change could it effectuate?

‘I am not naïve, I know that a small group of people cannot really change the course of history. But I think that we built a small lighthouse that people could gain support from when they try to embark on future projects which are in the same spirit.

‘More than the politicians, I think the younger generation, which lives in the world in general and specifically in our region, unlike in my generation, does not really have a firm internal belief that they can change how things are. The systems look too alienated and too over-constrained. I think that what the younger generation can take from us is that a group of dedicated, idealistic people can sometimes make a small dent. And then how others use the dent, or not, is really up to them.’

The length and type of each accelerator defines the type of research that can be carried out, from the production of X-rays to colliding quarks.

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The Issue

A synchrotron light source is a circular, football pitch-sized machine which uses powerful magnetic fields to shoot electrons to almost the speed of light. The light produced by a synchrotron, called a beamline, is shined at materials, allowing scientists to work out their internal structure.

The Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) project was launched in 2002 to foster a culture of peace and cooperation, and its members currently include Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey.

The EU has spent over EUR 15 million supporting SESAME, making it the second-biggest contributor after Jordan.

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