Physics has always been one of the most globalized of professions. Physicists think of themselves as supranational, rising above national and cultural concerns. They may not always live up to this ideal, but at least they try. I got a glimpse of this as a college student in 1987, when I spent my spring break at Bell Labs. High-temperature superconductors had just been discovered, and I had some fun levitating magnets (and collaborated on a published paper). Over lunch, the talk turned to poking holes in the iron curtain. Lab scientists were making contacts with colleagues in the Soviet Union, organizing joint conferences and translating articles from or into Russian. They told me stories about Andrei Sakharov and the Pugwash conferences, which brought together scholars from all countries to work toward nuclear disarmament and later won a Nobel Peace Prize.
This idealistic urge remains powerful. In April, at a workshop I was attending on black holes, I talked to Eliezer Rabinovici, a theoretical physicist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He and his colleagues may well be the only people on the planet to have gotten Arabs, Iranians, Turks and Israelis to agree on anything. Many countries around the Middle East have signed on to their project to build a particle accelerator for joint use: SESAME.
The decades-long effort has made understanding the nature of space, time and matter look trivial. “I had a vision to try and work with our neighbors, to do something for our common humanity,” Rabinovici says. “That sounds bombastic, but that's what SESAME is all about.”
The project has managed to hang together despite the tumult of the past two decades. It chose a laboratory site in Jordan in 2000, completed the building in 2008 and settled on the synchrotron design. It is not really a particle physics project but a general source of radiation for chemistry, biology, pharmaceutical development and other fields—a diversity that is matched to the region's needs.
In March, Iran, Turkey, Jordan and Israel pledged $20 million for the main accelerator. The project has now gone, cap in hand, to the U.S. and the European Union for the balance, about $15 million.
In 1954 European scientists founded CERN near Geneva so that German, French, British and other ex-adversaries would have a place to shoot particles rather than bullets. “It was one of the places where Europe was reborn,” Rabinovici says. SESAME arguably has the tougher task because the adversaries are not yet “ex.” Another Israeli theorist, Ramy Brustein, compares it to “climbing on an ice wall.” Yet in 1987 everyone thought the same of cultural exchanges across the Berlin Wall.
Adapted from Observations at blogs.ScientificAmerican.com/observations