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Synchrotron Project Brings Together Unlikely Partners in Middle East


By Kimberly Parker, special correspondent for Cross-check

[Editor's Note: I recently forced students in my Seminar on Science Writing at Stevens Institute of Technology to write short responses to my book The End of War. Kimberly Parker, a sophomore majoring in mathematics, submitted the following essay, which so impressed and heartened me that I'm sharing it with readers of this blog. John Horgan]

Our class was recently asked whether or not we felt particle physics research should receive public funding. The majority of us were opposed, our reasons being that such research has no practical value. An instrument as sophisticated and expensive as a particle collider is surely a waste of a nation's resources.

So it might come as a surprise that plans to build a synchrotron particle collider in Jordan have received overwhelming support from countries in the Middle East, including Iran, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Scientific discovery is not the only goal being pursued. Those involved hope that this installation, appropriately dubbed SESAME (for Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East), will open lines of communication between countries that would not normally work together, and possibly inspire peace.

In John Horgan’s The End of War, he argues that war can be eradicated by simply choosing peace. To support his argument he cites Muzafer Sherif’s famous Robbers Cave Experiment, in which twenty-two fifth-grade boys in a camp were divided into two groups, Rattlers and Eagles, and kept apart for a week, each group growing suspicious of the "others."

When brought together to compete in games, the groups were alarmingly violent toward one another, having been “manipulated into hating and fighting." However, once the groups were presented with problems that could only be solved by cooperating with one another, the violence ceased, and they eventually became friends. Sherif saw these interactions as evidence that "traditionally hostile groups can overcome their differences if they are bound together by [a common goal]."

This idea inspired Stanford University physicist Herman Winick more than a decade ago to suggest the synchrotron being dismantled in Germany be sent to the Middle East instead of being scrapped. In the same way that the boys in Sherif’s experiment could only rent a movie if everyone contributed money, a project as expensive as SESAME can only be achieved with funding from multiple countries.

As of 2012, Iran, Israel, Jordan and Turkey have agreed to make contributions of $5 million each to fund the project, which will be based in Jordan and is expected to open in 2015. Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority are willing to give $5 million and $2 million respectively, and Egypt and the United States are both considering making contributions. The project has also been donated spare parts from a number of countries following Germany’s example, and has received funding from the European Union (Science Diplomacy).

Being willing to fund the project is one thing, but can delegates from these nations, some of which have no diplomatic relations, actually work together in the same room? Despite the hostility between countries, the "atmosphere [in preparatory meetings] was amazingly calm and businesslike" (BBC). Scientists in this region have simply decided to forget their political differences in order to pursue their research. Can the "bridges of trust" built between these scientists have an effect on the entire region? Can scientific collaboration inspire peace?

If SESAME is a success, it will not be the first time scientific research has been used to improve international relations. CERN was established in the aftermath of World War Two, with the goal of rebuilding European science while inspiring peaceful collaboration between formerly warring nations. Throughout the Cold War, the East and West were able to maintain contact through CERN by focusing on pure research, excluding military science, and welcoming scientists from all countries. Today, scientists from over 100 nations have joined CERN, and it has inspired a number of similar projects around the world (Public Service Europe). SESAME will be the first in the Middle East.

Just as the hostility between the Rattlers and Eagles at Robbers Cave dissolved in favor of cooperation, political differences in the Middle East are being ignored in favor of pursuing shared goals. The plans to promote peace and solidarity through scientific cooperation began in 1995 with a meeting in Egypt between the Egyptian Minister of Higher Education, and Eliezer Rabinovici, of MESC and Hebrew University in Israel (Science Diplomacy). Since then, SESAME has helped to foster relationships between scientists from multiple regions, and its completion is now a tangible possibility. These nations have achieved a great deal by simply choosing to cooperate in order to pursue what they could not on their own.

At this point, it does not matter whether or not SESAME produces world-changing research, as it has already done a remarkable amount of good in the region. Pursuing this common goal has inspired meetings between nations in spite of political tension, and the completion of this project may be an enormous step in choosing peace. So, is providing funding for this project a waste of the United States’ resources?

Works Cited:

Photograph of SESAME facility in Jordan courtesy

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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