Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Zewail and Mahfouz

Ahmed Zewail believed that advances in science must be allied with cultural and literary development in society. Are we ready to take up that torch and continue, asks Mohamed Salmawy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt is paying homage to the great Egyptian scientist Dr Ahmed Zewail with a military funeral, just as it did a decade ago for our great man of letters, Naguib Mahfouz. The two Nobel Prize laureates share more than a stately military procession to escort them to their place of rest in the land of Egypt. Many may not realise that Naguib Mahfouz was the first person to predict that Zewail would win a Nobel and Mahfouz had not even known or previously met Zewail at the time.

Mahfouz told me how thrilled he was when he read that an Egyptian scientist had invented a new time scale for measuring extremely short intervals that would have a long term impact on scientific research. At the time, he dedicated one of his weekly “Perspective” columns in Al-Ahram to that scientific breakthrough and said that its inventor should attract the attention of the Nobel Committee because he merits that prize. Soon afterwards, Zewail was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Sometime later, Mahfouz was sitting together with his family in the Semiramis Hotel. He looked up and saw a man with a great warm smile approaching him. The man introduced himself saying, “I’m Ahmed Zewail. You were the first person to nominate me for the Nobel Prize. I wanted to thank you and salute you.”

In 2001, five years before Naguib Mahfouz would pass away, I received a phone call from Dr Zewail who asked me to accompany him on a visit to the great novelist to congratulate him on his 90th birthday. Mahfouz welcomed the idea, although with every passing year he grew increasingly weary of those parties and congratulatory events that people forced on him without considering of the state of his health. But that meeting with Zewail 15 years ago transcended the customary birthday salutations.

It developed into a profound dialogue between two unique intellects from disciplines that many believe are antithetical, although that meeting would stand as proof that for a true renaissance to emerge, the scientific and creative realms must coexist and complement each other.

The meeting began, naturally, with Zewail congratulating Mahfouz on having reached his 90th birthday. Mahfouz jokingly responded that he did not merit the congratulations because it was not his doing that he had reached that age. He then said that he had once read that scientists had discovered that human genes determined the age of a person. Dr Zewail confirmed this and expressed some surprise that the great man of letters would be reading up on developments in the realm of science. In fact, Mahfouz had always been fascinated by modern scientific discoveries and he followed them as much as possible. In like manner, Zewail was deeply interested in culture and public affairs. Whenever he was back in Egypt he tried to meet intellectuals and cultural figures in order to discuss the conditions of the country and how to promote development and progress.

This began many years before the 2011 Revolution. On one of those occasions, a group of us were gathered on the balcony of the Grand Hyatt, overlooking the Nile. Our discussion, which broached the various political, economic and cultural problems of our country, lasted nearly an hour and a half. After most of the guests there left, Dr Zewail leaned toward me (I was sitting next to him) and said, “Egyptians are brilliant at diagnosing problems and analysing their causes, but they rarely come up with the remedy.” From then on, whenever I attended a public discussion, those words of Dr Zewail would come to mind.

Zewail’s perpetual search for solutions to the problems of this country was clear proof of his patriotism and his concern (in all senses of the word) for the state of Egypt and how to enable it to advance. He believed that a real and substantial development process welded scientific progress with intellectual and artistic creativity. This was what sparked the meeting of those two great minds during that rare encounter between Zewail and Mahfouz on the occasion of the latter’s 90th birthday.

Mahfouz said: “The renaissance we want for our country can only be achieved on a foundation of scientific progress that keeps pace with the latest developments in the world.” He proposed creating a committee consisting of Egyptian scientists abroad and led by Zewail to draw up a plan to enable Egypt to take its place on the scientific map of the world. “How is it that Pakistan and India could accomplish such nuclear progress in spite of their economic problems and we could not?” he asked. Then he added, “Modern civilisation is fundamentally a scientific civilisation and not just an ideological civilisation, as was the case in the past.”

Dr Zewail responded: “True, our present day civilisation is one of science and technology. However, I believe that we cannot elevate science to the desired level without having a foundation of intellectual and literary culture. Society cannot become civilised and aware unless it has a literary, philosophical and moral culture that equips it to deal with science and technology.

The moral considerations I refer to concern the whole of society and not just the scientific researcher. Society offers the sole guarantee that scientific accomplishments will serve to promote the welfare of society and human advancement and not be used to serve evil and destructive purposes.”

Mahfouz said: “Towards that end we must keep pace with scientific progress and, at the same time, derive inspiration from our heritage. You, Dr Zewail, have done that. Your interest in the measurement of time is inseparable from our ancient Egyptian civilisation which, of all the ancient civilisations, was the most conscious of the value of time.”

Mahfouz also noted the scientific contributions to mankind made by Arab civilisation. In this regard, Zewail mentioned Al-Hassan Ibn Al-Haytham and how the latest scientific theories are consistent with the 11th century scientist’s theory on the reflection of light. Ibn Al-Haytham (known in the West as Alhazem) wrote his famous studies in Egypt during the era of the Sultan Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah, at the time when Arab civilisation was the civilisation of both the realms of letters and science.

As I observed those two intellectual giants, I asked myself: If human civilisation is indeed built on science and technology, on the one hand, and ideas and culture, on the other hand, what are we waiting for? Here we have two internationally recognised geniuses who have been awarded the most prestigious honours. We have right here the solution that Zewail mentioned that he missed during his discussions with other Egyptians. So why don’t we take advantage of this rare opportunity?

Sadly, Mahfouz passed away and so has Zewail. Will we be able to apply their agreed-upon principle that in order to realise the advancement of Egypt, scientific and technical progress must go hand-in-hand with intellectual and artistic excellence? Or has the solution vanished with these two great men’s passing?

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