Professor Ahmed Zewail, winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is both an Arab and an American. Born in Egypt, Zewail is the first Arab to win a Nobel Prize in science. Educated at Alexandria University (BS '67, MS '69), 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 moved 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.
Professor Zewail was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his "studies of the transition states of chemical reactions using femtosecond spectroscopy" (Prize citation). According to Professor Bengt Norden's presentation speech, Professor Zewail pulled back the curtains on "a misty no-man's land," by developing the fastest camera in the world, capable of photographing the details of chemical change - filming the molecules during the reaction in order "to get a sharp picture of the transition state."
Today, Norden continued, through Professor Zewail's pioneering work "we can now study the actual movements of atoms in molecules; . . . they are no longer invisible." The breakthrough leads on to possible applications in almost all fields of science - chemistry, biology, the human genome, electronics. When Professor Zewail received at the surprisingly young age of 51 the Welch Prize in Chemistry for lifetime achievements, Norman Hackerman, chair of the Scientific Advisory Board, pointed out that the ability actually to observe molecular "rearrangement has already stimulated important new theories and understanding by scientists in many fields."
When Zewail was still a teenager in secondary school his siblings prophetically pinned a sign, "Doctor," to his bedroom door. Throughout his life, Ahmed Zewail has been driven by a passionate devotion to scientific research and an impassioned desire to excel. At Berkeley and at Caltech he had a reputation for virtually living in his laboratory and galvanizing devoted student followers. Professor Zewail closed his Nobel Prize address with the words in Arabic of the great scholar Taha Hussein: Wailu li-talib al-'ilmi in radia 'an nafsihi. "The end will begin when seekers of knowledge become satisfied with their own achievements." Zewail later shortened his translation: "Woe to the satisfied scholar."
Professor Zewail has no intention of abandoning either the search or the journey. His autobiography, Voyage through Time, published in 2002 by the University in Cairo Press, traces his life from his small city close to Alexandria in Egypt through to his receipt of the Nobel Prize and his plans and hopes for the future. Proud of his dual American and Egyptian citizenship, Zewail is constructively critical of both countries' policies, particularly in the areas of science and education. Professor Zewail is a true liaison between the cultures of East and West. He engages actively in seeking remedies for the ills of the have-nots of the present-day world. In Egypt he seeks education for all based on merit, accompanied by a shrinking of the roadblocks of bureaucracy. He envisions the time when every talented Egyptian child will receive a broad education, while higher education will be limited to the deserving. The construction of a thriving future for Egypt must, he believes, focus on changes in education, bureaucracy, and the law.
His constructive criticism does not spare his adopted land. Although Zewail has seen America as the land of opportunity - of his own personal opportunity - he questions the diminishing support for science, the social imbalance in the education system, and the soaring violence on the streets of US cities. Searching for his path after the Nobel prize, Zewail asks, "How can I prolong a positive impact on the well-being of others, especially the have-nots?"
Recognition and awards too numerous to mention have marked Professor Zewail's journey to the Nobel prize and beyond: high schools, streets, squares, fellowships, prizes, and postage stamps named in his honor; visiting professorships - including both Cambridge and Oxford - at universities in Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Kuwait, the United Kingdom, and the United States; nearly five hundred distinguished lectures including the Celsius, Faraday, Röntgen, ranklin, and Planck lectures. He has been named to special honors and distinctions by several countries, including Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. Oxford and several universities in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Egypt, India, Italy, Scotland, Switzerland, and the United States have bestowed upon him honorary degrees. Special prizes have included the King Faisal International Prize in Science, the Wolf Prize in Chemistry, and the Benjamin Franklin, City of Pisa, Linus Pauling, and Peking University Medals. Professor Zewail particularly cherishes the highest honor bestowed by Egypt, the Order of the Grand Collar of the Nile, conferred by President Mubarak in 1999.
Ahmed Zewail's autobiography, Voyage through Time: Walks of Life to the Nobel Prize, published by the American University in Cairo Press in 2002, is dedicated to the hope of developing Egypt's youth through education:
You lit the beacon of civilization
You deserve a brilliant future
May my voyage light a candle of hope for your youth