Mention the Iran deal to any politician and you’ll get a wide range of responses—anywhere from incredulity to solemn approval. The deal has been a divisive and stirring issue in American politics, bringing out the armchair nuclear physicist in every pundit. Politicians have been unable to reconcile their ideological differences and sometimes unwilling to face the facts.
Where politicians have floundered, scientists from all over the world have negotiated. Ernest Moniz, the US Secretary of Energy, and Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, are top scientists who represent the opposing sides. Moniz and Salehi are both nuclear scientists who crossed paths at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1970s. These two leaders have been at the center of the deal, settling not only the politics of nuclear non-proliferation, but also the technical aspects of uranium enrichment and secure plant control systems. They have been a moderating force in this tense diplomatic process, figuring out the many technical issues behind the politics of the deal.
This isn’t the first time we have seen this narrative: science has unified estranged countries many times in the past, most notably during the Cold War. As the US and the USSR kept global tensions high with the threat of thermonuclear war, scientists patiently negotiated and advised on non-proliferation treaties, such as the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) of 1972. As the Space Race captured the minds and imaginations of a generation, the “Handshakes in Space” program helped build mutual respect between the rival superpowers. USSR cosmonauts and US astronauts teamed up to carry out more experiments in microgravity than ever before. Around the same time, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, was uniting bitter rivals within what is today the European Union. At its founding in 1954, however, things were not so rosy. The aftermath of World War II had left plenty of scars upon the land and in the psyche of the people. Yet scientists were able to collaborate to create much-needed particle accelerators, the Synchrocyclotron being among the first ones.
While the reunification of European powers seems like a tale long in the past, this same mode of thinking is taking place today in the most unexpected places. In the minds of most Westerners, the Middle East is a hotbed of conflict in today’s age, and progress through collaboration is about as likely as flying pigs. But even there, scientific diplomacy is breaking through expectations of what can be achieved. The SESAME Synchrotron, to be built in Jordan, is an international collaboration of a remarkable set of countries: Turkey, Pakistan, Cyprus, Iran, and Israel. The synchrotron, a particle accelerator that will smash together particles to learn more about how they operate, is uniting scientists from each of these countries, allowing them to pool together resources and to collaborate. While synchrotrons exist all around the world today, the SESAME synchrotron, named for the phrase “Open Sesame,” will be the first one in the Middle East. Besides potentially enabling scientific advances to be achieved, this collaboration is bridging intense and deep-seated cultural divides. The scientists working on the project have been able to set aside differences and come together in the interest of scientific progress. Do these scientists feel odd sitting together at discussions? As Professor Roy Beck of Tel Aviv stated, “Iranian and Palestinian and Pakistani scientists are my friends because they are scientists, so we have a common ground.”
Why might the language of science foster diplomacy? As Professor Baltay made plenty clear in the first Physics 260 lecture, physics is an observational science! Every theory must be supported by experimental observations. Scientists in general—not just physicists—naturally question rhetoric and search for meaning. In general, scientists subscribe to the idea of an objective truth, looking for results that are verifiable and repeatable. Throughout the history of science, the most important discoveries have been made when the past generation’s assumptions were questioned. This had led to generations of scientists who have learned how to think skeptically, who are willing to listen and compromise. All scientists, ranging from high-energy physicists to organic chemists, from exobiologists to mathematicians, have been trained to pay more attention to arguments than to the people delivering them. Scientists must be able to divorce ideas from their proponents, and thus they tend to regard even non-scientific issues more objectively, looking past personal biases to consider the ideas. They can accept the facts even if they don’t trust the sources.
The ability to look beyond nationalistic hopes for power and wealth in search of objectivity is something that we should all be seeking. In collaborations like SESAME and CERN or in treaties like the Iran deal, we see sanity brought back to an increasingly polarized world. Perhaps science really does provide us with a unifying identity, which is something that all the world’s citizens can celebrate.
Chunyang Ding is a freshman in Saybrook college. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Featured image: Collaboration among European nations after World War II at CERN. Image courtesy of cern.ch.)