Between taking precautions against viruses and worrying about assassinations, scientists from Israel, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey work together in Jordan.
Our correspondent received the rare opportunity to meet the physicists and get a glimpse into one of the ambitious projects of the Middle East — the SESAME Synchrotron, a type of cyclic particle accelerator.
“Welcome to Jordan, and we thank Israel very much,” said Dr. Hamed Tarawneh, who welcomed me graciously — not the type of reception that Israelis generally receive in Arab States. Tarawneh, a Jordanian who earned his physics doctorate in Sweden, is the [deputy] technical manager of SESAME. This seems to be the only place in the world in which you can find official representatives from Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Israel sitting around one table.
SESAME is the acronym, and pet name, for “Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East.” [Sometimes it’s also called “synchrotron” for short; a synchrotron is a cyclic particle accelerator]. If you haven’t heard about it until now, then evidently you are not a certified physicist who goes to sleep with invisible particles and wakes up with atoms — not the types of atoms that blow up, of course. Three months ago, in a hotel in Amman, representatives from Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Iran signed a pledge to fund a joint science venture. The price tag: $5 million per country.
Why did you emphasize “thank you” to Israel, I later asked 37-year-old Tarawneh, father of two. “Because this venture would have died without Israel,” he explains. “Only empty promises would have remained. I know that Israel set the whole process in motion, after it understood that the project was stuck; it announced that it would provide five million dollars if the other countries would come up with similar sums.”
Our friendly particle accelerator has materialized, as I was able to see with my own eyes. We already have another big success under our belt — all the scientists [here] live in peace with one another.
It is a very early hour in the morning in the SESAME building, adjacent to the dusty city of Allan about 30 kilometers from Jordan’s border with Israel. I accompany physicist Professor Eliezer Rabinowitz, the best-man, founder, and live-wire behind this grandiose accelerator. For the past 15 years he has been alternating his time between tents in Sinai and hotels in Amman, Geneva, Cairo and Istanbul. Now he has returned here [to Jordan], to bask in the fruits of his labors.
In a Sinai Encampment
Outside, fierce heat. Inside, the two physicists—Eliezer the Israeli and Hamed the Jordanian—shower me with more and more information, until my brain threatens to short circuit. In short, the story began in the 1940s when several scientists and diplomats decided to establish a scientific venture in Switzerland that would be run jointly by all the countries, thus (hopefully) promoting peace between them. Eventually the venture turned into the illustrious particle accelerator in Geneva, the one that has long been searching for the “God Particle.” [A hypothetical, massive subatomic particle with zero electric charge whose existence would explain the masses of the elementary particles.]
Enter Professor Rabinowitz, Chairman of the Israeli High Energy Committee and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It turns out that Rabinowitz had been pondering exactly the same concept together with his Italian colleague, [theoretical physicist] Sergio Fubini.
About three weeks after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin [in 1995], the two physicists shared a Bedouin tent encampment in a scientific conference in Sinai. Scientists from Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and the Palestinian authority also participated in that conference.
In 2000, the venture received a much-needed shot in the arm after Germany contributed an old particle accelerator. Jordan supplied the land and the facility while the EU paid lip service, goodwill and a promise of money, part of which has not yet been provided. It was clear to all the participants that the venture was worthwhile. The Israeli physicist explains that a synchrotron does not accelerate with the energy or power of the Swiss [Geneva] accelerator. It is also not built on the collision principle [and does not smash atoms]. Instead, a synchrotron [is like an enormous x-ray machine that] rapidly turns electrons until they radiate light. This radiation may be used for many various purposes such as development of medications, clinical trials in the life sciences, nano-technology and more. [Synchrotron studies are useful in chemistry, molecular biology, environmental science, pharmaceuticals and nanotechnology.]
Rabinowitz explains that the venture was launched with the ongoing support of: the Israeli Academy of Sciences; science ministers and the Ministry of Science; the Finance Ministry; the Foreign Ministry, and the Committee for Planning and Budgeting.
The final, decisive meeting that culminated in the signing of the budgeting of the venture was attended by: Professor Rabinowitz and Moshe Vigdor, CEO of the Council for Higher Education and its Planning and Budgeting Committee. “Two years ago, it was hoped that Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan would participate,” explains Vigdor. “No one thought that Iran would join, but eventually it submitted a request to join on a functional level as well — in other words, it contributed five million dollars. Meanwhile, Egypt still hasn’t joined.”
At that important meeting, Vigdor and Rabinowitz sat together with 2 Palestinians, one Turkish fellow and 2 high-echelon Iranians. “It was a purposeful, businesslike work meeting,” reports Rabinowitz. “It was clear to everyone that this venture has no political aspects, only scientific ones. Everyone benefited from it.”
By the way, the Jordanian villagers who live near the particle accelerator heard only partial information and were worried that it involved high energy levels produced by the accelerator and that atom scientists would live near their homes; as a result, they got angry and oppositional. Tarawneh said that [to solve the problem], they flew the important mukhtars [heads of villages] in the region to visit several particle accelerators in Europe and showed them the benefits that these facilities afforded to the surroundings. The mukhtars were convinced and calmed down the rest of the residents. Today they are considering opening up the accelerator to painting and photography science exhibitions, and to conduct tours of the site for students and interested Jordanian citizens.
From casual water-cooler conversations in the SESAME halls, it was clear that all the staff members were aware of Israel’s large part in promoting the project. This includes the scientists from Pakistan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Palestine, Turkey, Jordan, and even the observing countries. However, this did not exactly give me any brownie-points with the scientists of the above countries. As soon as the news was heard that two Israelis had arrived, one of the Iranian workers on shift disappeared, never to be seen again. His Pakistani colleague, who had been very nice to me and agreed to connect my laptop to the electrical outlet in his office, went out for a moment (“I’ll be right back to talk to you”), also leaving no trace. “Don’t take offense, it’s not personal,” says their boss, Dr. Hamed Tarawneh. “They are just afraid of being identified and photographed in an Israeli newspaper. But the main thing is that we do science together here, not just talk.”
By the way, Tarawneh himself will be taking his family with him to a post-doc in Berkeley University in California. “I have worked here since 2006, but there were problems of financing the continuation of the venture. I had to worry about my career,” he apologized. “For five years we waited for money. Only Jordan contributed —Jordan donated the land, the building, salaries and transportation. The venture almost died, and then Israel saved the day with its commitment of five million dollars.”
Regards from Rita
Between the walls of the enormous facility I meet one of the workers, Sophian Jaffar, 24, a Jordanian electronics engineer. “Everything here is so different,” he enthuses. “The atmosphere, the enthusiasm, the international flavor of the people we work with here.” Twenty-five people are employed on the premises, most are male. Jaffar pokes fun at my accent in English. “Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis all share similar accents [when they speak English],” he says. “But not our colleagues here who come from Pakistan. They speak a distinguished English with an aristocratic British accent, and sometimes it’s hard for them to understand us.”
The amiable Jaffar reports that he’d like very much to see Israelis here on a permanent basis. Yet when I ask his permission to photograph him together with Professor Rabinowitz, he turns me down firmly. I tell him that I went out and bought a copy of Rita’s new disc, My Happy Occasions, to give to the Iranian engineers who work here. [Rita, Israel’s most popular female singer, was born in Iran and is fluent in Persian. Her full name is Rita Jahanforuz.] However, the fellows suggest that I return the disc to Tel Aviv. After all, at a time when the Flame computer virus—product of an anonymous country-- runs amok in Iran, it’s not a good idea to bring a gift from Israel to Teheran. Only Rita knows what viruses and other bizarre phenomenon may be lurking in her disc.
What unites everyone here is the enthusiasm of young workers, the kind of atmosphere to be found in your ordinary Israeli start-up.
“Even though Israeli scientists visit here frequently, there are no permanent Israeli workers here. I really don’t understand why,” wonders Dr. Tarawneh. “I’ll explain it to you,” interrupts Professor Rabinowitz. “The Israeli worker needs lodging arrangements—here, on your campus.”
“Why can’t the Israeli stay in hotels like we do, or rent an apartment in the nearby city?” insists the Jordanian.
“Because Israel formally takes charge of the security of its Israeli citizens in Jordan,” says Rabinowitz decisively. “The Israeli researchers will join the team permanently when the accelerator will be ready.”
Until then, who knows—maybe they’ll find the God particle, or a peace agreement will be signed in the Middle East. The odds of either option coming true, say the experts, are rather equal.
What did Albert Einstein use to say: “It is harder to crack prejudice than an atom”.