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Nobel Laureates Tackle Middle East Problems

More than thirty Nobel laureates, including nine physicists, gathered in the ancient city of Petra, Jordan in May to discuss ways to improve education, environment, economy and health in the Middle East.

At the conference, the Nobel Laureates launched an effort to raise $10 million for a Middle East science fund to support scientific collaborations and projects to improve education in the Middle East. The fund would initially support projects in Israel, the Palestinian territory, and Jordan, and would eventually expand to include more of the Middle East.

The meeting, the third annual Petra Conference of Nobel Laureates was organized by the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity and the King Abdullah II Fund for Development. Political leaders and youths from the region also attended the conference. Breakout session groups focused on environment, economy, health, and education.

David Gross, a 2004 Nobel laureate in physics and director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, attended the conference. Gross is pushing for more opportunities for scientists in the region to collaborate. Israel and the Palestinian authority both make it difficult for scientists to work together, but “a lot of people in these countries are interested in peaceful collaboration,” said Gross.

Another conference attendee, Val Fitch, 1980 Nobel laureate, joined a working group to push forward some environmental efforts in the region. He was inspired by youths from the region who attended the conference and discussed their experiences. “The situation in the Middle East is so miserable. I think any attempt to span the gulf [between Arabs and Israelis] is a good thing,” said Fitch. He said the conference produced some good efforts at collaboration.

Gross, who also attended the first Petra conference in 2005, has been involved with promoting scientific collaboration in the Middle East for years. For example, he promotes SESAME, (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East), a synchrotron under construction in Jordan that could be used for innovative physics, biology, and chemistry research by scientists from the Middle East.

Collaboration between scientists can make a difference, Gross says. “The example I like the most is the contact that occurred during the Cold War,” he said. Even when relations between the Soviet Union and Western countries were strained, scientific cooperation continued. The communication between Soviet and Western scientists led to discussions about arms control, and once scientists had opened the discussion, it helped politicians discuss these issues. “I think physicists can be proud of their record,” said Gross. “Because scientists talk the same language and feel part of an international community, they can often overcome political differences.”

Fitch also believes that physicists and other scientists can do a lot of good. “I think of us as being able to solve any and all problems,” he said. 

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff