Ahmed H. Zewail, Nobel-Prize-Winning Chemist, Dies at 70
Ahmed H. Zewail , an Egyptian-American who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999 for developing a revolutionary technique to observe the dance of molecules as they break apart and come together in chemical reactions, died on Tuesday. He was 70.
Dr Zewail, a naturalized American citizen, was the first Arab to win a Nobel in any of the sciences, and he used that stature to champion science education and research in Egypt and the Middle East.
The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., where Dr Zewail was a professor of chemistry for four decades, announced his death, but did not have information on where he died.
Mostafa A. el-Sayed, director of the Laser Dynamics Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a friend of Dr Zewail’s, said Dr Zewail had been treated for spinal cancer for about 10 years. His body was being flown to Egypt for a military funeral on Sunday, Dr Sayed said.
The death elicited a statement from Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who said, “Egypt lost one of its loyal citizens and a genius scientist who spared no effort to serve his country in the various arenas.” Dr Zewail was a recipient of the Order of the Grand Collar of the Nile, Egypt’s highest honor.
Chemists have long studied chemical reactions by looking at the ingredients they started with, the final products they produced and, sometimes, transitory molecules along the way. But they could not watch the actual dynamics of the process because the breaking and shifting of chemical bonds occurred too quickly. A vibration of an atom in a molecule typically takes 10 to 100 femtoseconds. A femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second.
To capture the molecules in so infinitesimal a moment, Dr Zewail took advantage of advances in lasers that could fire ultrashort pulses, using them as strobe lights. One laser pulse would set off the chemical reaction, then a second pulse would record the state of the molecule through the colors of light the molecule absorbed and emitted.
By repeating the same experiment many times, varying the time between the pulses, Dr Zewail and his colleagues could, in essence, piece together a movie of the reaction.
A new field, femtochemistry, was created and flourished.
“He wanted to go somewhere science hadn’t gotten before,” said Peter B. Dervan, a professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology.
After receiving the Nobel, Dr Zewail devoted time to improving scientific research in Egypt. “His idea is, ‘We’ve got to teach them that research is very important,’ ” Dr Sayed said.
Instead of Egyptians’ going abroad for doctoral studies, as he had, he wanted to create an independent, cutting-edge research institution in Egypt. And with others he did, in Cairo: the Zewail City of Science and Technology , which Dr Dervan described as “a Caltech in Egypt.”
The cornerstone was laid in 2000, but the project languished until the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Dr Zewail, who led the board of trustees, spearheaded fund-raising, mostly from individuals. Zewail City opened its classrooms to students in 2013, and there are now 535 students enrolled.
Part of Dr Zewail’s vision was to restore the Arab world to its historical place as a center of learning. In an op-ed article published in The International New York Times in 2013, Dr Zewail wrote: “Westerners often forget Egypt’s long history of educational accomplishment. Al Azhar University, a center of Islamic learning, predates Oxford and Cambridge by centuries. Cairo University, founded in 1908, has been a center of enlightenment for the whole Arab world.”
Dr Zewail acknowledged that the Middle East had fallen far behind.
“A part of the world that pioneered science and mathematics during Europe’s Dark Ages is now lost in a dark age of illiteracy and knowledge deficiency,” he wrote. “With the exception of Israel, the region’s scientific output is modest at best.”
But he remained optimistic. “I call on Egypt’s leaders, of whatever religious or political persuasion, to insulate education and science from their feuds,” he wrote.
Ahmed Zewail was born in Damanhur, Egypt, on Feb. 26, 1946. After he completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Alexandria University, his advisers encouraged him to go abroad for a doctorate. In the Egypt of 1967, with its ties to Moscow, that usually meant going to Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union. But when the University of Pennsylvania offered him a fellowship, he accepted.
“So, by luck, he came to America, which would not have been the usual route when young Egyptian men of talent were going abroad to get educated in science,” Dr Dervan said.
After completing his doctorate in 1974, Dr Zewail worked at the University of California, Berkeley, before becoming a professor at California Institute of Technology in 1976. He earned his citizenship a few years later.
Dr Zewail was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a foreign member of academies in other countries, including Britain, Russia, France and China. He was an author or co-author of 600 scientific papers.
He served on President Obama’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology from 2009 to early 2013. He also served as the United States science envoy to the Middle East.
Dr Zewail is survived by his wife, Dema Faham, and four children, Maha, Amani, Nabeel and Hani.
After winning the Nobel, Dr Zewail switched gears to invent a new form of microscopy using ultrafast pulses of electrons instead of light. The electrons can track, for instance, how layers of graphite vibrate like a drum.
In February, Caltech held a symposium titled “Science and Society” to celebrate Dr Zewail’s 70th birthday. Before a packed auditorium, he spoke of his efforts to expand research in his native country and the importance of holding to a vision.
“What do you do after you get the Nobel Prize?” Dr Zewail said. “It’s my choice, but hopefully it’s a choice that will make an impact. At Caltech, you dream, and you dream big, and the sky is the limit.”