Monday, November 26, 2012

Open Sesame! - Diplomacy through science

For as long as I can remember being even remotely aware of international politics I have known one thing to be certain: Arabs and Israelis don't get on! It's a fact that I've grown up knowing and has been reinforced time and time again in recent years with seemingly unbreakable cycles of violence and ever more dangerous and confrontational political rhetoric from both sides. The most recent exchanges of ammunition between Gaza and Israeli cities is simply the latest chapter in this sad tale of a fractured region.

But how will the story end? Little diplomatic progress has been made in the resolution of the conflict in the 60 years that it has been raging, and indeed the conflict has spread to bring countries such as Iran and Pakistan into the front line of political warfare. The historic, cultural, and religious differences between the two sides seem simply too insurmountable to overcome, and so a bloody (and potentially radioactive) conclusion seems a terrifyingly possible outcome.

Yet, in the midst of all the hatred and mistrust, there is a glimmer of hope on the diplomatic front that has come in the form of a collaborative scientific project. Sesame, which stands for 'Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East', is a multi-million dollar particle accelerator currently under construction near Amman, Jordan. Synchrotrons are fantastically useful facilities capable of producing a form of light known as synchrotron radiation that can be harnessed to investigate materials on unbelievably tiny scales. One such application is the study of proteins and other biological molecules down to atomic scales such that their structure and function can be better understood, and potentially so that we can develop more sophisticated drugs to target them. I recently wrote about the 2012 Nobel Prize for Chemistry awarded to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka, which would have been entirely impossible without facilities such as Sesame. 

Synchrotron light, which gives the Crab Nebula (above) its blue haze, can be made on Earth to investigate protein structures down to minute scales, like the one shown below.

Sesame will be the first synchrotron in the Middle East and will provide a huge boost to the scientific community in the area - not just in molecular biology but also particle physics, materials science, chemistry, and engineering. That said, however, there are about 60 synchrotrons worldwide so even though Sesame will provide a vital local service, it isn't going to be a game-changer in the world of international science. Instead, what is truly remarkable about Sesame is the way in which it has fostered a sense of cooperation and communication within some areas of otherwise polarised societies. The project is joint funded by the governments of Israel, Iran, Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan, as well as the EU. Many of these governments are overtly hostile towards one another: neither Iran nor Pakistan has any formal relations with Israel; Iran is openly committed to the destruction of Israel; and the Israeli government has threatened on numerous occasions to launch pre-emptive strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. The idea of these old adversaries working together is staggering!

And yet it seems to be happening. Sesame's facilities are well under construction, and even though there is still a $10 million shortfall in the funding needed to complete the project, those in charge are confident that it will be up and running by 2015. Scientists often talk about the universal nature of science and its ability to bring people together in a sense of united curiosity and progress, but in Sesame this ideal is becoming reality. This is further exemplified by the fact that, along with the countries listed above, Cypriot researchers are also amongst those who will be the principle users of the facility despite the fact that their government does not share any diplomatic relations with the government of the Turkish scientists alongside whom they will be working. The gathering of Sesame's principle future users saw Palestinians mingling with Israelis, Iranians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Cypriots, Turks, and Pakistanis, all openly and calmly engaging in unbiased discussion about the future of the project and the state of science in the region. The significance of this is difficult to comprehend given the sheer level of mistrust that usually exists between these countries. Prof. Eliezer Rabinovici of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem described Sesame as "a beacon of hope for many in the area who dare to believe.", whilst Dr Jamal Ghabboun, a Palestinian physicist from Bethlehem University, hopes that "science will open the door to further understandings concerning other issues - we will begin with science and somehow we will open the doors that are closed for years or centuries."

I am a great believer in the potential of science to bring unity to civilisation and to fractured societies. So many of the arguments and conflicts that we hear about on the news are born out of fundamental differences of opinion over one thing or another, whether it be religious or historical fact. Science is impartial and universal; it is an absolute, all we can do is hope to understand it in ever greater detail. In that sense science is immune to the petty bickering that we humans so often have over the minute differences that we focus on rather than on the enormous similarities that we share. Prof. Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, who heads the governing council of Sesame, describes science as a "common language" that can transcend cultural and national differences and promote peace and understanding. Sesame is not the first example of this: CERN, of Large Hadron Collider fame, was established after the chaos of the second world war as part of the larger concerted effort to promote common goals across Europe and so prevent future conflict. 

So, I am hopeful that Sesame will achieve its dual aims of fostering discourse between the fractured peoples of the Middle East by it foundation, and of directly furthering scientific understanding by its operation. Who knows, it may also promote the expansion of science in the region and slow the current 'brain-drain' from the countries involved, as has happened in countries like Brazil and Taiwan when synchrotrons have been built in the past. Increasing the proportion of the population who are scientifically engaged in these countries can, in my eyes, only be a good thing. It's a long way off, but I desperately hope that my grand-children do not grow up with the 'fact' of Arab-Israeli hatred, but rather with the understanding that our knowledge of existence is in its infancy and our journey towards fully understanding it is one that we will only complete if we take it together. 

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