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After attending a conference at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, we made a short trip cross the Jordan river to visit the joint Middle-Eastern X-ray synchrotron facility SESAME. They’ve built this impressive accelerator in the desert in the heart of the Middle East. Israelis can use it — and so can Iranians, Jordanians, Turks, Pakistanis and many others. Scientists from countries recently at war or without diplomatic relations work here side by side — Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists sharing the pursuit of knowledge.

During its planing at the end of the 90s, this seemed to be an impossible dream, and indeed the project took decades to materialize and often came close to disintegration. As the saying goes: The difficult we do immediately;the impossible takes longer.

Sesame-Google Maps

The machine functions a bit like a super-sophisticated X-ray machine. About 50 of these “light sources” exist around the world, and they are prized among researchers for their versatility. They can reveal the atomic structure of matter, making them useful for everything from biology to chemistry to archaeology.

The name, SESAME, is in reference to the magic phrase “Open Sesame,” from the story of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, and is meant to symbolize the open nature of the project. The founders also hope to encourage young scientists in the Middle East to stay in the region, and reduce the brain drain of talent to Europe and the United States.

Scientists depend increasingly on elaborate machines, such as particle accelerators, supercomputers and space telescopes — shared tools on a colossal scale. The premier example of this is CERN, the research facility outside Geneva where physicists used a particle accelerator to search for theoretical Higgs boson (found!). CERN is run by 28 member or associate states. But science is not immune to political turmoil. 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 United States of involvement in the attacks, which both countries denied. The SESAME council later issued a condemnation of the assassinations.

Tensions also flared at a meeting held in 2010 shortly after ­Israeli commandos attacked a Turkish-owned ship carrying aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, recalled Khaled Toukan, chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission. “We were on the verge of withering away,” he said. “It has not been easy. But we made it.”

Rabinovici said the council resolved not to discuss politics or issue political statements. He said in an email that scientists also never discuss their religious faith.

In an article on the project, Rabinovici noted that there continue to be some “bitter” feelings from things that have happened over the years. Asked to elaborate, he replied, “Let’s concentrate on the good feelings.”

Money has been and continues to be in short supply for SESAME. And the world’s richest country, the United States, has not given money directly to the project.

Article in the New York Times.

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