Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Father of femtochemistry

The passing in Pasedena, California, on 2 August of Ahmed Hassan Zewail offers a golden opportunity for Egypt to pay tribute to its great achievers and for Egyptians to soberly ponder the accomplishments of the likes of the late Nobel laureate. Zewail was one of only a handful of people who could answer questions like how fast does the energy within an isolated large molecule such as naphthalene with a structure that consists of a fused pair of benzene rings redistribute.

Dedication and perseverance in scientific pursuits invariably come at a cost, but in the case of Zewail they also came with considerable rewards, international recognition and awards. He garnered some 40 honourary degrees in the sciences, arts, philosophy, law, medicine, and humane letters from universities and institutions of higher learning across the globe.

Zewail was not a man to be bound by the constricting nostrums of his past, the sleepy provincial backwater he was raised in. He was born in the Nile Delta city of Damanhour, the “City of Horus,” and raised in neighbouring Desouk, both towns southeast of Egypt’s second-largest city Alexandria. The cosmopolitan port city nurtured his far-reaching scientific ambitions. He received his BSc and MSc degrees from Alexandria University and then a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in the United States. Zewail’s doctoral thesis was supervised by Robin M. Hochstrasser.

Thousands of Egyptians headed by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi gathered to bid farewell to Zewail in a magnificent state funeral at the Hussein Tantawi Mosque in New Cairo on Sunday. It was a very touching occasion as the late Nobel laureate embodied the spirit of resilience and the quest for the betterment of his people and humanity through scientific research. Many people wept as the funeral cortège carried Zewail’s mortal remains past them.

Zewail was far from indifferent to the plight of the people from which he came, and as a result he was accorded an unprecedented official funeral. Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, the Grand Imam of Egypt’s highest religious institution, Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, and renowned heart surgeon Magdy Yacoub were among the high-profile people who attended the funeral.

A further more intimate and less officious ceremony took place at the family burial plot in 6 October City, where his mortal remains were laid to rest. Zewail was a scientist of the first rank, a lifelong searcher after knowledge, and hence even though he was sometimes reduced to sound bites by the Egyptian media, people acknowledged by their participation in his funeral that higher education and scientific research in Egypt cannot be furthered without his ideas.

“Curiosity is what science is all about: the quest to reveal the unknown,” Zewail once said. His father assembled bicycles and motorcycles, but Zewail’s humble beginnings did not deter him from seeking knowledge. Unlike the stereotypical reclusive scientist locked away in his laboratory, Zewail was right to the end a genuine man of the people who always wanted to see others succeed in the way he had. In 1999, Zewail won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He was the first African or Arab to win a Nobel Prize in a scientific field.

After completing his PhD, Zewail embarked on postdoctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley, supervised by Charles Bonner Harris. He delivered his Nobel Lecture on “Femtochemistry: Atomic-Scale Dynamics of the Chemical Bond Using Ultrafast Lasers,” but this was a later interest, and earlier in 1976 he was awarded a faculty appointment at the California Institute of Technology as the first Linus Pauling Chair in Chemical Physics. He was affiliated with this prestigious institution after 1990.

Zewail was mostly oblivious to the ideological dogmatism and partisanship that raged about him in the immediate aftermath of the 25 January Revolution in Egypt. He was not drawn into religious altercations. “Although the Nasser Revolution of 1952 was secular, the culture remained deeply religious, but it was a faith of moderation and tolerance. Women made up nearly half my class at university, and my senior academic adviser was a woman. In Alexandria, my friends were Christians and Muslims,” he once recalled.

Zewail was nominated to and participated in US president Barack Obama’s Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). He cherished the American citizenship bestowed on him in 1982, but he was never torn between Egypt and the United States. “Personally, I have been enriched by my experiences of Egypt and America and feel fortunate to have been endowed with a true passion for knowledge,” Zewail remarked. In 2014, he was named one of 31 Arab-Americans Who Have Had an Impact on America by a Muslim-American Website. But he insisted on being buried in his native Egypt.

As a member of PCAST, Zewail participated in the formulation of US policy in the areas of science, technology, and innovation. In a speech delivered at Cairo University in 2009 Obama proclaimed a US “Science Envoy” programme which he argued would foster closer relations between the US and the Islamic world. Zewail was an enthusiastic supporter, and in January 2010 he and Algerian-American medical researcher Elias Zerhouni and American biochemist Bruce Alberts became the first US science envoys to the Muslim world. They visited predominantly Muslim countries in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. With Islamophobia rearing its ugly head in the West, Zewail with his grace, modesty, and sophistication was a breath of fresh air in a global atmosphere of chauvinism and xenophobia.

He was dubbed the “father of femtochemistry,” the branch of physical chemistry that focuses on chemical reactions that occur on the femtosecond timescale, hence the scientific appellation.  “A femtosecond is comparable to one second in 32 million years. It is like watching a 32-million-year movie to see one second,” Zewail recounted.

He was the third Egyptian to be awarded the Nobel Prize, the first being late president Anwar al-Sadat, who received his Nobel Peace Prize in 1978. The late Naguib Mahfouz received his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988, and politician and political activist Mohamed ElBaradei was given his Nobel Peace Prize following Zewail in 2005. In 1995, Zewail received Egypt’s highest honour, the Grand Collar of the Nile.

Egyptians have sometimes been accused of having cynical, even dismissive, opinions of their compatriots, perhaps especially those who excel in the scientific arena. The Biblical proverb attributed to Jesus Christ, “a prophet is not without honour, except in his own country,” springs to mind. There are many who believe Zewail was not fully appreciated in his own country in spite of his tremendous contributions to scientific research. 

The land dispute between Nile University and the Zewail City of Science and Technology is a case in point. A March 2014 ruling in favour of Nile University has been cited as an example of how Zewail’s attempts at furthering scientific research and fostering a love of scientific pursuits among Egyptian young people have been frustrated. Thankfully, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi decreed that a new campus designed to meet the needs of the Zewail City be constructed soon after the court ruling by the Armed Forces and inaugurated on the now fully operational Sheikh Zayed Campus.

Al-Sisi’s intervention was an acknowledgment of Zewail’s dedication to facilitating scientific studies and research in myriad scientific fields among young people in Egypt.

“Higher education should be based on quality, not quantity, receive merit-based funding, and be free of unnecessary bureaucracy. Not the least of the benefits of educational reform is to foster the pride of achievement at the national and international levels,” Zewail said. Investing in science education and curiosity-driven research is investing in the future,” he added.

As he grew older, public speaking came more easily to him. He was never one to be relegated to the world of dusty academia. His public lectures were invariably persuasive accounts of the ideas that had guided his scientific career. In November 2012, Zewail delivered his lecture “Technology’s Promise, Humanity’s Future” in conjunction with the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), during a much-publicised Hamdani World Harmony Lecture Series at UCSB. 

The American University in Cairo (AUC) launched the Zewail Foundation Public Lecture Series in Science and Culture, tellingly entitling the inaugural address “Egypt is the Hope.” As an AUC trustee, Zewail was keenly interested in the education of Egyptian young people. However, his interest was not restricted to the economic elite, and he was also committed to educating the needy and giving a chance to the downtrodden, as expressed in the Ahmed Zewail Foundation (AZ). The Foundation provides support for the dissemination of knowledge and for merit awards in the arts and sciences.

 Zewail, who is survived by his Syrian-American wife Dema Faham and his four children Maha, Amani, Nabeel, and Hani, was accorded an official state funeral in Egypt. “He will remain a symbol of a scientist who devoted his life honourably, faithfully and sincerely to scientific research and as the best teacher for generations of scientists of the future who will continue his ‘journey of giving’ to provide a better reality to humanity,” Al-Sisi said in a presidential statement.

As well as being a proficient public speaker, Zewail was a prolific writer who authored some 600 articles and 14 books. A quintessential global citizen, he was also profoundly Egyptian and irrevocably attached to his homeland. “On the banks of the Nile, on the Rosetta branch, I lived an enjoyable childhood in Desouk, which is the home of the famous Mosque of Sidi Ibrahim,” he once said.

“The mosque was the neighbourhood house of worship, but it was also the place where my high school friends and I came to study.”

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