Politics at SESAME



I’ve been following the story of the SESAME collaboration in the Middle East since I first heard about it seven years ago, and was really thrilled when its synchrotron achieved first light in November 2017. I wrote about the significance of the occasion for The Wire‘s ‘The Year in Hope’ series of piece about uplifting moments in 2017. Excerpt:

It’s the largest experiment (in terms of investment and participation) to have brought together scientists from Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. These are states that hardly – if at all – see eye to eye, making this collaboration particularly remarkable. …

Gihan Kamel, an Egyptian scientist who has been with SESAME since August this year, told Times Higher Education, “Basically, we are scientists, we are not politicians. We don’t care about politics inside SESAME at all.” Such an outlook is inspiring because it ensures scientific knowledge is not forfeited even in a region as constantly overwrought as the Middle East.

That’s an interesting thing for Kamel to say because it suggests SESAME’s scientists are shielded from their respective politics when they’re working together on the synchrotron. Considering the tensions that often prevail on the outside, such working conditions must be blissful – but also affording the collaboration a measure of privilege that runs the risk of turning counterproductive. This is akin to saying scientists must be able to stay in their ivory towers without being forced to think about proletarian concerns.

For example, in the case of the Middle Eastern collaboration, saying “We don’t care about politics inside SESAME at all” is to forego an impressive opportunity for intellectuals from warring nations to sit down around a table and discuss physics as well as the road to peace. Something may come of it or nothing at all – but it’s obvious that it would be useful to try, and trying entails an acknowledgment that the collaboration’s members must care about the politics when inside SESAME as well.

Featured image: Beam steering, focusing and monitoring equipment at the SESAME research centre in Jordan. Credit: iaea_imagebank/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.