President's Speech - Ahmed Zewail

​​Dr. John Waterbury's Speech
Introducing Ahmed Zewail 
June 25, 2005

Dr. Ahmed Zewail has made strides in scientific research that are universally recognized, but, equally important, he has brought renewed focus on scientific research in the Arab world. In his book, A Voyage through Time, he salutes the many unsung heroes in Egypt who imparted to him the scientific foundations on which his extraordinary accomplishments have been built. There surely may have been, and may be, other Ahmed Zewails in Egypt and other Arab countries whose brilliance has been obscured by inadequate support and attention to scientific research in this part of the world.

Dr. Zewail, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999. He was educated at Alexandria University, taking a BS in 1967, and an MS in 1969. He completed his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania in 1974, and then spent two years as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, before moving to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he rose rapidly from assistant professor of chemical physics in 1976, to Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Physics in 1990, and in 1996 to the position he still holds today as director of Caltech's Laboratory for Molecular Sciences.

His break-though research at Caltech came in the field known as femtochemistry, a field he essentially created. Professor Bengt Norden, who introduced Dr. Zewail at the Nobel Prize Ceremony in 1999, summarized femtochemistry in these words:

"The molecule passes the transition state as fast as the atoms in the molecule move. They move at a speed of the order of 1000 m/second - about as fast as a rifle bullet - and the time required for the atoms to move slightly within the molecule is typically tens of femtoseconds (1 fs = 10 to the fifteenth seconds). Only a few believed that such fast events would ever be possible to see.

"This, however is exactly what Ahmed Zewail has managed to do. Zewail's use of the fast laser technique can be likened to Galileo's use of his telescope, which he directed towards everything that lit up the vault of heaven. Zewail tried his femtosecond on literally everything that moved in the world of molecules."

Dr. Zewail is a man of boundless energy and a deep commitment to advancing science in the Arab world, indeed in the world as a whole. Like all great minds he appears to be gifted in several fields, and his devotion to science is simply a reflection of his commitment to bettering all of humanity. It is no surprise that he also comes fully equipped with Egypt's proverbial sense of humor. Again, he wrote in Voyage through Time: "With the laurel of Nobel, I was bombarded with requests for advice on almost everything - from infertility and birth control to the hole in the ozone layer and to life on Mars. Through e-mails and the internet I received questions about life, money, and even received personal requests such as one man's e-mail proposal of marriage to one of my daughters, Amani - his CV looked good to me, but this approach wasn't pleasing to Amani!"

In a more serious vein he wrote: "I take even greater pride in being at the same institution where Linus Pauling did his own Nobel prize-winning work on the nature of the chemical bond...Pauling worked from crystallographic data, and his bonds were static, stable, and enduring. Now, forty-five years later, we have set those bonds in motion, making them as alive and dynamic as chemistry itself. I think this connection from the structure of the chemical bond to the dynamics of the chemical bond is a wonderful legacy for Caltech to give the world. As Robert Paradowski, Pauling's biographer, said, 'Just as Pauling had used the techniques of X-ray crystallography and electron defraction to figure out the structure of molecules, so Zewail used sophisticated laser techniques to describe how atoms move during the process when new molecules are created. It is at special institutions like Caltech that it is possible for us, with our students and associates, to provide such a legacy.'"

I am confident that Dr. Zewail would agree that such institutions must exist in the Middle East and other parts of the developing world. The brains are here. Ahmed Zewail is testimony to that fact. It is the institutions, the enabling environment, that are lacking. Dr. Zewail has time and energy to work on that challenge, and all of us in higher education in the Middle East must support him.