Hassan Zewail, Nobel prizewinner

Warren S. Warren of Duke University remembers Ahmed Hassan Zewail (1946-2016) in an obituary published in Nature, September 2016.

That the first science Nobel prizewinner from the Arabic-speaking world, Ahmed Hassan Zewail, pioneer of ultrafast chemistry, was also a diplomat is apparent in his unique list of distinctions. Few scientists can have been garlanded by foundations in both Israel and Saudi Arabia, served in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences — and had their face on several postage stamps while living. He died on 2 August 2016, aged 70.

The eldest child of a middle-class family, Zewail was born on 26 February 1946. He grew up in Desouk, Egypt, a small town 80 kilometres from Alexandria. After a state-school education, he took undergraduate and masters degrees in chemistry at the University of Alexandria. He then decided to further his studies in the United States, despite a fairly weak command of English (a fact which shocks those of us who knew this eloquent speaker later on).

He did his graduate work on novel spectroscopies, including optically detected magnetic resonance, with Robin Hochstrasser at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. His postdoctoral work was on coherence in multidimensional systems and energy transfer in solids, with Charles B. Harris at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1976 he joined the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where he remained for the rest of his career, rising to become the Linus Pauling professor of chemistry in 1995. Like Pauling, his reputation and impact would truly transcend science . . .

Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s he led his group to do experiments on ‘femtochemistry’ — his coinage for causing and watching reactions using light pulses lasting much less than a picosecond (a millionth of a millionth of a second). This is the timescale of chemical reactions at the molecular level — the timescale of vibrations and nuclear motions. For this work he became the sole recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Before the advent of such ultrafast lasers in the 1970s, chemists’ ideas of the dynamics of molecules in excited states were very different from todays’. They believed that the dominant force was intramolecular relaxation, and that this was largely incoherent . . .

Zewail never lost his drive to modernize science in the Arabic-speaking world. In speeches and articles he reminded his countrymen of the historical greatness of their science, and encouraged them to build to greatness again through investment in education and fundamental research. He was the driving force behind the Zewail City of Science and Technology in October City, Giza. After a troubled gestation due to political instability, this new university finally opened in 2013, with institutes intended to cover all the fields required for development of Egyptian society. Zewail was also on US president Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology for four years and served as the US science envoy to the Middle East.

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