Monday,19 March, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)
Monday,19 March, 2018
Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Obituary: Envoy to science

Ahmed Zewail (1946-2016)

Al-Ahram Weekly

Nobel Prize winner Ahmed Zewail died on Tuesday at the age of 70 in the US; he had been suffering from spinal cancer. His dying wish, his media advisor said, was to be buried in his homeland.

Zewail was born on 26 February 1946 in Damanhour. He earned a BSc and MA in chemistry from Alexandria University before obtaining his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. He undertook postdoctoral research at California University where he worked at the California Institute of Technology from 1976 till 1990.

He was the first Linus Pauling Chair in chemical physics and became an American citizen in 1982.

In 1999, Zewail received the Nobel Prize in chemistry “for his studies of the transition states of chemical reactions using femtosecond spectroscopy”. Zewail became the third Egyptian to receive a Nobel Prize following president Anwar Al-Sadat (1978 in Peace) and Naguib Mahfouz (1988 in Literature); Mohamed ElBaradei followed (2005 in Peace).

In his Royal Swedish Academy presentation speech on the occasion, Professor Bengt Nordén said, “Femtochemistry has found applications in all branches of chemistry, but also in adjoining fields such as material science and biology… Femtochemistry has radically changed the way we look at chemical reactions. A hundred years of mist surrounding the transition state has cleared… Professor Zewail, I have tried to explain how your pioneering work has fundamentally changed the way scientists view chemical reactions. From being restricted to describe them only in terms of a metaphor, the transition state, we can now study the actual movements of atoms in molecules. We can speak of them in time and space in the same way that we imagine them. They are no longer invisible.”

Zewail was on President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, contributing to US policy in the areas of science, technology and innovation.

During Obama’s speech at Cairo University on 4 June 2009, he announced a new Science Envoy programme as part of a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world”. In January 2010, Zewail, Elias Zerhouni and Bruce Alberts became the first US science envoys to Islam, visiting Muslim-majority countries from North Africa to Southeast Asia.

During the 25 January Revolution 2011 Zewail returned to Egypt to join a committee for constitutional reform alongside other Egyptian dignitaries. He was later mentioned as an intermediary between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which ruled after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, and revolutionary youth groups.

Commenting on rumours that he might run for Egypt’s presidential elections, he said, “I am a frank man... I have no political ambition, as I have stressed repeatedly that I only want to serve Egypt in the field of science and die as a scientist.”

Zewail had proposed a project, the City of Science and Technology, to train Egyptians at the cutting edge of science and technology. The project, however , was delayed until after the 25 January Revolution. Zewail had said that the complex with its three constituents – the university, research institutes, and technology park – “is designed to bring about effective participation in 21st-century science, to elevate local technologies to world levels, and to increase national productivity”.

The Zewail City of Science and Technology was established as a nonprofit, independent institution of learning, research and innovation, with the government’s role limited to providing the land and facilitating the construction of the complex on 1,200 square kilometres in 6 October City.

Zewail is survived by two sons and two daughters.

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