Against expectation, Israel, Iran and the Arab world are collaborating on a major new science project in the Middle East. Reporting assignments in the Middle East often involve great danger - think of Syria and Gaza. Others run into bureaucratic obstruction. But the SESAME science project in Jordan is so bizarre it presented challenges of a wholly unexpected kind. The first was the sheer difficulty of grasping that the story was not the figment of someone's imagination but was actually happening.
A "synchrotron" facility called SESAME - at its heart, a particle accelerator not unlike Europe's CERN - is coming together in Jordan. A news story on the SESAME project explains the science it aims to do, but that is not the striking thing about it. On the scale of surprises that take a very long while to sink in, SESAME is off the scale: common sense would scream at you that it just should not be feasible.
The scenario goes as follows: take one of the world's most unstable regions, pick some of the countries that are most violently opposed to each other and then bring them together under one roof to do science. An extraordinarily bold idea to plant a world-class science facility - a synchrotron light source - in the heart of the Middle East for researchers from anywhere from Cairo to Tel Aviv to Tehran”. The list of countries involved looks utterly improbable: it includes Jordan, Turkey, Bahrain and Egypt - so far so normal. But then add Iran and - amazingly - Israel too.
And they actually have to meet each other every year to discuss plans including the fraught question of contributions. This is SESAME in a nutshell: an extraordinarily bold idea to plant a world-class science facility - a synchrotron light source - in the heart of the Middle East for researchers from anywhere from Cairo to Tel Aviv to Tehran.
So the first obstacle is getting past one's own natural incredulity that anything like this could ever get off the ground. But the fact is that it has. SESAME not only has a rather grand new building, near the village of Allan in the hills northwest of Amman; it also has the first components that will generate and accelerate a flow of electrons. If all goes well, sometime around 2015, the energy from those electrons will be harnessed to help peer into the world of the microscopically small. This is no ordinary science project. Yet somehow, after a decade of huge uncertainties about funding and endless doubts about who will take part, the people making this project work have found a way of rubbing along.