USA: Ahmed Zewail, Nobel prize-winning chemist – 1946-2016


Professor Ahmed H. Zewail, left, receives the Nobel Prize in chemistry from Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf, right, at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden, 1999

Source: The Telegraph

Ahmed Zewail, who has died aged 70, became the first Egyptian – and the first Arab – to win a Nobel Prize for science when he won the Chemistry award in 1999.

Zewail spent most of his life in the US where he became Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. He won the prize for developing a sort of “flashlight”, using ultrashort laser pulses, which enabled him to watch chemical reactions unfold, step by step, on timescales of “femtoseconds” – millionths of a billionth of a second.

In reactions where several bonds are made or broken, knowing whether this happens simultaneously, or with one stage triggering another, or independently, is important in planning the “synthetic routes” used to develop complex chemicals such as pharmaceuticals – as well as in analysing such mechanisms as photosynthesis, in which plants turn sunlight into energy.

Before Zewail’s breakthrough, what exactly happens, and the sequence in which it occurs, had been something of a mystery.

Ahmed Hassan Zewail was born in Damanhur, a city about 100 miles northwest of Cairo, on February 26 1946, and grew up in nearby Desouk. His father was a government employee and businessman.

His interest in the physical sciences began in childhood and was encouraged by his mother, who allowed him to use her coffee-making apparatus to carry out chemical experiments in his bedroom. “I still remember this vividly,” he recalled, “not only for the science, but also for the danger of burning down our house!” On the door of his room his mother hung a sign, “Dr Ahmed”.

He studied Chemistry at Alexandria University, then, since there was no government funding available, managed to pull together a clutch of fellowships and scholarships to enable him to travel to the US. He took a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974.

After postdoctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1976 he joined Caltech as an assistant professor and later became the first holder of a chair named after the double Nobel-Prizewinner Linus Pauling.

Zewail wrote hundreds of scientific papers and contributed to more than a dozen books. He also patented several solar energy concentrator devices which help to focus energy from the sun to make electricity.

From 1982 he held dual American and Egyptian citizenship and he served as a member of President Obama’s science and technology advisory panel, from 2009 to 2013, and also as the president’s special envoy for science to the Middle East.

Zewail campaigned to raise money for a new science-based university and research campus near Cairo. In an article in the Independent in 2006, he called on the Arab world not to be distracted by “the ideologies of the past and conspiracy theories of the future” but to forge a new “jihad for modernity and enlightenment”.

The Zewail City of Science and Technology was inaugurated in 2011.

Read further

1 reply

  1. Saddened to learn about the death of Thomas Kibble.

    I had the privilege to meet Thomas Kibble, during the Salam Memorial Meeting at ICTP in 1997.
    I did correspond with him during the years immediately after the meeting.

    With warm regards + best wishes

    Sameen Ahmed KHAN
    Assistant Professor
    Department of Mathematics and Sciences
    College of Arts and Applied Sciences (CAAS)
    Dhofar University
    Sultanate of OMAN

Leave a Reply