Ahmed Zewail's Acceptance Speech

June 25, 2005

Shofo Albahr Show Kebir, Kibr Albahr Bahbkom!

Ladies and gentlemen:

I am delighted to be back in Lebanon and be part of the Honorary Degree Celebration at the American University of Beirut (AUB). It is indeed an honor to be among giants of their own fields, Excellencies Richard Debs, Fairuz, Ghassan Tueni, and His Highness the Aga Khan.

I don't have a written speech, but I have a few points that I would like to share with you on this occasion.

First let me tell you an anecdote about AUB. You just heard the very kind and laudatory words about me from President John Waterbury. I hope what I am about to say will not embarrass John. In 1975, I received from AUB a memorable letter dated May 7. I had been thinking, before this date, of returning to Egypt. I had just finished my PhD study in America and hoped I could do research and help the part of the world that I came from. Although I still had my faculty position at the University of Alexandria, I thought of AUB as a research place and was encouraged by some who knew AUB well.

So I wrote to AUB, and I received the letter dated May 7, 1975 that clearly reflected the very high standards of AUB. The letter's text reads as follows: "Dear Prof. Zewail: I just received your letter dated April 3rd, 1975, in which you apply for an academic position in our Department. Our selection committee[s] have already made their choice from the applications which we have received. I hope you will be able to find a better job and wish you good luck...Sincerely yours."

Now, I have to tell you that this rejection has been on my mind for 30 years, but the bestowing of the honorary degree today restores the honor. John, you now know why I promptly accepted.

Seriously, for what I wanted to do, AUB did me a favor. After receiving offers from Caltech, Chicago, Harvard, and other universities, I decided to go to Caltech, the California Institute of Technology, a premier institution in America. Caltech has had until now, from the list of its faculty and graduates, 33 Nobel Prize winners, and I am one of them. Maybe if AUB had made the offer, my walks of life would have been different.

In retrospect, what does it take to reach such heights? There is a misconception in the Arab world. If you are brilliant, you can do anything - you can land on Mars, or get a Nobel Prize. Surely it helps to be genetically endowed, but you need more than being brilliant. In my case, the milieu and the system I worked in were essential forces for success. And success did not come with a silver spoon. There were many obstacles and many hurdles. The book Asr Al álm - we celebrated its first publication in Beirut yesterday - describes many labyrinths in the Nobel saga.

The barriers were cultural, scientific, and even political. Forgetting history, some considered that a boy from Egypt, a boy from the developing world, could not reach that high. Others stereotyped a man from the Arab world as knowing only about camels, oil, and the harem. The situation was not helped by my poor English when I arrived in the United States. The American people are friendly, and they told me I had a beautiful accent - I don't know what accent when I couldn't speak the language! Even in simple communications, I mixed up dessert for desert, so for some time I ordered a whole desert after lunch.

And I will never forget the mudammas incident. You all know about the Egyptians' love of ful mudammas. My friend Hussein had a craving for ful mudammas, so we went to an Armenian deli outside Philadelphia to buy ful in big quantities, in bags of tens of kilos. The Armenian grocery man, dressed up in a white robe, brought out the bag of fava beans and, while putting it in the trunk of the car, said, "I hope your horse will be doing fine." He could not comprehend that humans could eat such quantities in any culture.

Behind the success in science - the story you heard from John - there were numerous challenges and even dogmas that we had to overcome. We wanted to reach a time scale that is a very, very, very...small fraction of a second - a millionth of a billionth of a second. It is called a femtosecond. One femtosecond to a second is like a second is to 32 million years. So, with my group at Caltech, we had to trailblaze in mountains of unknown technology and concepts. But we knew if successful, we would open up a whole new world whereby we could see the microuniverse and take snapshots of atoms moving during the life of molecules. The Nobel Prize citation made the analogy with Galileo's telescope as our femtoscope brings such motion to direct vision. Metaphorically, if you like, you are sitting in a theater for 32 million years and you are watching every second of the movie. The scientific learning and the needed scientific developments were of huge magnitude.

I am glad that today's honorary degree is in humane letters. Throughout my personal voyage of discovery, I learned that ignorance is the real enemy of humanity. Irrespective of which culture you come from you are still human, and all humans have the same genetic makeup. I consider being East-West bicultural an enrichment, not a hindrance, and I do not subscribe to concepts such as those of Samuel Huntington regarding the clash of civilizations or religions. As someone with a scientific background, I find no physics in all of these slogans. History tells us that many cultures and religions have peacefully coexisted and still coexist, provided there is visionary leadership and fairness in the treatment of people of our world. Our thinking should not be shaped by a concept of inferiority to Westerners or by a division between the East and West.

The East, Egypt, gave me the nucleus of education and a good value system. The West, America, gave me opportunity and appreciation. I was offered an opportunity at Caltech and became a full professor at an early age in a premier university. But, as importantly, the system of governance and transparency I worked in made me fear no one and liberated my mind to think freely. Yesterday I mentioned to Mr. Ghassan Tueni, who interviewed me for An-Nahar, that one cannot do truly creative work without "liberty of mind" - the freedom of thought.

So my message to the leaders of the Arab world is simple. We owe it to future generations to begin now the liberty of mind, not by slogans but by real action for true democratic changes. I see great opportunities for this region, and I am convinced that Arabs have the resources. We have the human resources and we have the capital. We are not any less than the people of Malaysia. We are not any less than the people of South Korea. And we are not any less than the billion people of China or the few million people of Ireland. The Arabs have created great civilizations across history and it is possible to revive the glory, but only with liberty of mind.

I would like to end by wishing AUB continuing success in its intellectual leadership and its profound mission. I do hope that the American University of Beirut will continue to retain its high standards, to turn down future Nobel Prize winners!