Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 December 1999
Issue No. 460
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Decorating the femto

PRESIDENT Hosni Mubarak will today award Nobel prize laureate Ahmed Zewail the Necklace of the Nile, one of the most prestigious state decorations, in recognition of his scientific achievement. Zewail is the first Egyptian to be awarded a Nobel science prize.

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Last Friday, six winners and a formally dressed audience gathered in Stockholm's concert house. It was an elegant event, in which the Nobel prizes for medicine, chemistry, physics, economics and literature were presented. Among them stood Ahmed Zewail to receive the chemistry prize for research that makes it possible to watch atoms in slow motion during incredibly fast chemical reactions.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said that Zewail's work in the late 1980s led to the birth of femtochemistry, the use of high-speed cameras to monitor chemical reactions at a scale of femtoseconds, 0.000000000000001 seconds. To put it in layman's terms, the femtosecond is to one second what one second is to 32 million years. "We have reached the end of the road. No chemical reactions take place faster than this," the Academy said.

Zewail said the Nobel prize "recognises their [scientists'] untiring efforts which lead to new fields of discovery... inspiring the people of the world with the importance and value of new discoveries".

"If the Nobel prize had existed 6,000 years ago, when Egypt's civilisation began, or even 2,000 years ago, when the famous library and university at Alexandria were established, Egypt would have scored very highly in many fields," Zewail told the gathering.

Zewail's achievement has won him significant local recognition as well. In addition to the president's honours, two postage stamps sport his name. Furthermore, the scientific community has paid Zewail hard-earned respect. A delegation headed by Minister of Higher Education Mufid Shehab was at the airport on Wednesday to welcome the scientist home. Specialised magazines feature Zewail, while Egypt's cultural offices abroad are also celebrating the event.

Each Nobel prize this year commands a sum of $937,300. Many award winners have pledged the sum to charitable causes and science. Zewail, for his part, is planning to donate part of the prize money towards renovating and upgrading his high school in the Delta town of Dessouk.

Born in 1946, Zewail, a graduate of Alexandria University, currently lives in the United States where he earned his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974. He has held the Linus Pauling Chair of Chemical Physics at the California Institute of Technology since 1990.

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