By George B. Kauffman
Professor Ahmed Hassan Zewail of Caltech died unexpectedly on Tuesday, August 7 in Pasadena, California at the age of 70. He had recently recovered from a cancerous tumor on his spine and was said to be in good health, traveling freely and planning to return to Egypt to be with relatives for Eid Al-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice) on September 12. However, he died from a “sudden virus.” His body was flown to Egypt for a military funeral on Sunday, August 7. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stated, “Egypt lost one of its loyal citizens and a genius who spared no effort to serve his country in the various arenas.”
Zewail received the Order of the Grand Collar of the Nile, and the Légion d’honneur, Egypt’s and France’s highest honors, respectively. A foreign member of academies of other countries such as Great Britain, Russia, France, and China, he was author or coauthor of about 600 scientific articles. He served on President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2009-2013), as a U.S. Science Envoy to the Middle East, and a member of the United Nations Advisory Board. He is survived by his wife, Dema Faham, and four children, Maha, Amni, Nabeel, and Hani.
Zewail was born in Damanhur (“City of Horus”), about 100 miles northwest of Cairo, on February 26, 1946. Interested in science early, he recalled, “I had passion about science. My mother said I was going to burn the house (with chemistry experiments).” After receiving his bachelor’s (1967) and master’s (1969) degrees from Alexandria University, his advisors urged him to go abroad for his doctorate. Because of the Arab-Israeli wars and the United States’ backing of Israel and Egypt’s ties with Moscow, this usually meant going to Eastern Europe or the U.S.S.R. However, he applied to the University of Pennsylvania (my alma mater) in Philadelphia (my birthplace), where he received a fellowship and received his Ph.D. degree in 1974.
A naturalized American citizen and the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize in any of the sciences, Zewail used his stature to champion science education and research in Egypt and the Middle East. He received the Nobel Chemistry Prize in 1999 “for his studies of the transition states of chemical reactions using femtosecond spectroscopy.” Chemists had studied chemical reactions for many years by examining the starting substances, the final products, and sometimes the transitory molecules along the way. However, they were unable to observe the actual dynamics of the process because the breaking and shifting of chemical bonds occurred too rapidly. A vibration of atoms in a molecule typically takes place in 10 to 100 femtoseconds (1 femtosecond = 1 millionth of a billionth of a second).
In order to capture such an infinitesimal moment, Zewail took advantage of advances in lasers that were able to 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 that the molecule absorbed and emitted. By repeating the same experiment many times, varying the time between the pulses Zewail could piece together a “movie” of the reaction. Thus he created the now flourishing new field of femtochemistry.
After winning the Nobel prize, Zewail changed his research direction and invented a new form of spectroscopy, using ultrafast pulses of electrons instead of light. For instance, these electrons can track how layers of graphite vibrate like a drum. For decades my wife Laurie and I have published accounts of Nobel laureates and reviewed their works. Since Ahmed first telephoned in response to my usual request to recent Nobel laureates for information (none have ever called since then), we have been in frequent contact, and we and have reviewed his works as they appeared.
Although Muslims constitute more than 23 percent of the world’s population, as of 2015, only 12 Nobel laureates have been Muslims, whereas 193 (22 percent) of the total 855 laureates have been Jewish although Jews comprise less than 0.2 percent of the world’s population. At a time when Donald Trump and others of his ilk are excoriating Muslims, Zewail’s example may provide the impetus on education for adherents of the youngest of the three Abrahamic religions to reinstate their former Golden Islamic Age (8th century to 13th century).
This period is traditionally understood to have begun during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786- 809) with the inauguration of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where scholars from various parts of the world with different cultural backgrounds were mandated to gather and translate all of the world’s classical knowledge into the Arabic language. This period is traditionally said to have ended with the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate due to Mongol invasions and the Sack of Baghdad in 1258.
Part of Zewail’s vision was to restore the Arab world to its historical place as a center of learning. He said,” 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.”
However, Zewail admitted that the Middle East had fallen 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. With the exception of Israel, the region’s scientific output is modest at best.” Instead of going abroad for doctoral study as he had, he wanted to create an independent cutting-edge research institution in Egypt. Together with others, he created the Zewail City of Science and Technology in Cairo, which has been described as a Caltech in Egypt.”
The cornerstone was laid in 2000, but the project languished until the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Zewail, who headed the board of trustees, spearheaded the fund-raising, primarily from individuals. Zewail Ciry opened its classrooms to students in 2013, and there are now 535 students enrolled.
George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at California State University, Fresno and Guggenheim Fellow, is recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach, and Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, respectively.