Nobel Prize Chemist Ahmed Hassan Zewail Dies
By Sameen Ahmed Khan
Dhofar University
Salalah, Sultanate of Oman


Egyptian-American Nobel Laureate, Ahmed Hassan Zewailknown as the ‘father of femtochemistry’ died in USA on Tuesday the 2 August 2016 (28 Ziquad 1437). He leaves behind many science breakthroughs and an enduring legacy.

The passing of Ahmed Zewail, a science icon and one of the world’s most eminent chemists, has been met with worldwide grief. A military funeral (broadcast live on television) was held for Zewail on Sunday the 7 August 2016 in Cairo, Egypt. The funeral prayers were led by Ali Gomaa, former Grand Mufti of Egypt, at the El-MosheerTantawy Mosque in Cairo. The funeral was attended by senior academics, military generals, members of the judiciary, family, friends and high-ranking Egyptian officials. Those attending included President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi, former President Adly Mansour, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab and the renowned Egyptian-British heart surgeon MagdiYacoub.

Ahmed Hassan Zewail was born on 26 February 1946, in Damanhour in the delta of the river Nile, Egypt. He received a Bachelor’s of Science (1967) and Master’s of Science (1969) degrees in Chemistry from Alexandria University, Egypt. He then moved to the United States, where he did PhD (1974) from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia under the supervision of Robin M. Hochstrasser. He then did postdoctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley, supervised by Charles Bonner Harris. In 1976, he was appointed as a faculty member at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena. He was made the first Linus Pauling Chair in Chemical Physics. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States on 5 March 1982.

Zewail served as the director of the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology at the California Institute of Technology.

Chemists have long studied chemical reactions by looking at the ingredients they start with, the final products they produce and, sometimes, transitory molecules along the way. But chemists could not watch the actual dynamics of the process, because the breaking and shifting of chemical bonds occurs very quickly at the time scales of femtoseconds.

A femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second. Zewail took advantage of advances in lasers that could fire ultra-short pulses. 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. Using Zewail’s techniques, scientists can now observe the bonding and busting of molecules in real time. The research could lead to new ways of manipulating chemical or biological reactions as well as faster electronics and ultra-precise machinery. The technique developed by Zewial is likened to Galileo’s use of his telescope which revolutionized modern astronomy. Ahmed Zewail received the 1999 Chemistry Nobel Prize unshared. He is the first and only Arab to win the Nobel Prize in science. On that occasion he said, “If you can understand the landscape of a chemical change or a biological change, you might be able to alter the landscape”. He received many awards including the 1989 King Faisal International Prize for Science (in the subcategory physics with the co-winner Theodor Wolfgang Hänsch from Germany). In 1999, he received Egypt’s highest state honor, the Grand Collar of the Nile. Egypt issued postage stamps in his honor. Ahmed Zewail received numerous awards and honorary degrees.

In 2008, Zewail once again impressed the scientific community, when he and his team developed “four dimensional electron microscopy”. With this technology, it became possible to capture and recreate the movement and dynamics of fleeting changes in the structure and shape of matter, in real-time, and real-space. The femtochemistry is based on laser-light. The 4D electron microscopy is based on electrons and opened new avenues in biology, nanoscience and materials science. This would have been Ahmed Zewail’s next Nobel Prize!

After receiving the Nobel Prize, Ahmed Zewail also devoted his time to improving scientific research in Egypt. He will be remembered for his public service through tireless contribution to the science and education sphere as well as for his scientific feats. In 1999, Ahmed Zewail initiated the major project known as the Zewail City for Science and Technology in Giza, Egypt, The Egyptian Cabinet has proclaimed the project as ‘National Project for Scientific Renaissance’.

Ahmed Zewail was one of the speakers at the Opening Ceremony of the 2015 International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies. Zewail authored about 600 scientific papers and 16 books. In 2009, US President Barack Obama named Zewail to the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and later that year made him the first US science envoy to the Middle East. He joined the United Nations Scientific Advisory Board in 2013.

Ahmed Zewail has joined the ranks of the Medieval Arab chemists includingJabir ibn Hayyan (721-815, Latinized name, Geber) and Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (854-925CE, Latinized name Rhazes).



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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