Ahmed Zewail- Nobel Laureate

Ahmed Zewail-First Muslim Nobel Laureate in Chemistry

Submitted by: Prof. Dr. Ibrahim B. Syed

That the first science Nobel prizewinner from the Arabic-speaking world (also the first Muslim to win a Nobel in Chemistry), 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. [2]

Personal Life and Education

Ahmed Zewail the eldest child of a middle-class family, Zewail was born on 26 February 1946 in Damanhour, Egypt on the 26th of February, 1946. He grew up in Desouk, Egypt, a small town 80 kilometres from Alexandria. After a state-school education, he took undergraduate (B.Sc. in 1967) and a Master’s degree in chemistry in 1969 at the University of Alexandria.

Ahmed Zewail saysOn the banks of the Nile, the Rosetta branch, I lived an enjoyable childhood in the City of Disuq, which is the home of the famous mosque, Sidi Ibrahim. I was born (February 26, 1946) in nearby Damanhur, the “City of Horus”, only 60 km from Alexandria. In retrospect, it is remarkable that my childhood origins were flanked by two great places – Rosetta, the city where the famous Stone was discovered, and Alexandria, the home of ancient learning. The dawn of my memory begins with my days, at Disuq’s preparatory school. I am the only son in a family of three sisters and two loving parents.  I was raised in Alexandria by my  father, Hassan Zewail,  a mechanic who assembled motorcycles and bicycles. Later my father worked as a government official. My mother’s name was Rawhia Dar. My  parents were happily married for 50 years, until  my father  died on the 22nd of October, 1992.

My father was liked and respected by the city community – he was helpful, cheerful and very much enjoyed his life. He worked for the government and also had his own business. My mother, a good-natured, contented person, devoted all her life to her children and, in particular, to me. She was central to my “walks of life” with her kindness, total devotion and native intelligence. Although our immediate family is small, the Zewails are well known in Damanhur. For reasons unknown (to me), my mind kept asking “how” and “why”. This characteristic has persisted from the beginning of my life. In my teens, I recall feeling a thrill when I solved a difficult problem in mechanics, for instance, considering all of the tricky operational forces of a car going uphill or downhill.

After graduating with the degree of Bachelor of Science, I was appointed to a University position as a demonstrator (“Moeid”),  to carry on research toward a Masters and then a Ph.D. degree, and to teach undergraduates at the University of Alexandria.

This was a tenured position, guaranteeing a faculty appointment at the University. In teaching, I was successful to the point that, although not yet a professor, I gave “professorial lectures” to help students after the Professor had given his lecture. Through this experience I discovered an affinity and enjoyment of explaining science and natural phenomena in the clearest and simplest way. The students (500 or more) enriched this sense with the appreciation they expressed.

At the age of 21, as a Moeid, I believed that behind every universal phenomenon there must be beauty and simplicity in its description.

On the research side, I finished the requirements for a Masters in Science in about eight months. The tool was spectroscopy, and I was excited about developing an understanding of how and why the spectra of certain molecules change with solvents. This is an old subject, but to me it involved a new level of understanding that was quite modern in our department. My research advisors were three: The head of the inorganic section, Professor Tahany Salem and Professors Rafaat Issa and Samir El Ezaby, with whom I worked most closely; they suggested the research problem to me, and this research resulted in several publications. I was ready to think about my Ph.D. research (called “research point”) after one year of being a Moeid. Professors El Ezaby (a graduate of Utah) and Yehia El Tantawy (a graduate of Penn) encouraged me to go abroad to complete my Ph.D. work. All the odds were against my going to America. First, I did not have the connections abroad. Second, the 1967 war had just ended and American stocks in Egypt were at their lowest value, so study missions were only sent to the USSR or Eastern European countries. I had to obtain a scholarship directly from an American University. After corresponding with a dozen universities, the University of Pennsylvania and a few others offered me scholarships, providing the tuition and paying a monthly stipend (some $300). There were still further obstacles against travel to America (“Safer to America”). It took enormous energy to pass the regulatory and bureaucratic barriers. After working  for two years as an instructor, I then decided to further my studies in the United States, despite a fairly weak command of English (a fact which shocks those  who knew this eloquent speaker later on).  “  [1]

He attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a doctorate in 1974. The research for his Ph.D. and the requirements for a degree were essentially completed by 1973, when another war erupted in the Middle East. He did his graduate work on novel spectroscopies, including optically detected magnetic resonance, under his mentor  Robin Hochstrasser at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.  His Ph.D. Thesis was  on Optical and magnetic resonance spectra of triplet excitons and localized states in molecular crystals.

Supervised by Charles B. Harris at the University of California, Berkeley, Zewail then completed a post-doctoral fellowship for two years.  His postdoctoral work was on coherence in multidimensional systems and energy transfer in solids. After some time spent working at the University of California, Berkeley, Zewail transferred to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in 1976, where he continues to work until his death in 2016.  At Caltech he became the Linus Pauling professor of chemistry  and Professor of Physics in 1995 (he was made the first Linus Pauling Chair in Chemical Physics). Like Pauling, his reputation and impact would truly transcend science. [3]

He became a naturalized citizen of the United States on 5 March 1982. Zewail was the director of the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology (UST) at the California Institute of Technology.

Early Career

Zewail also served as a visiting professor at a number of institutions, including Texas A&M University, the University of Iowa, and American University at Cairo.  [4]

Nobel Prize Winning Work

He developed   a rapid laser technique that enabled scientists to study the action of atoms during chemical reactions. The breakthrough created a new field of physical chemistry known as femtochemistry He was known as the Father of femtochemistry (studies of chemical reactions on extremely short timescales) because of his marvelous works in that area of physical chemistry.

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. [5]

Because chemical reactions last only 10 to 100 femtoseconds (fs) – one femtosecond is 0.000000000000001 second, or 10^-15 – many believed it would be impossible to study the events that constitute a reaction. In the late 1980s, however, Zewail was able to view the motion of atoms and molecules by using a method based on new laser technology capable of producing light flashes just tens of femtoseconds in duration. During the process, known as femtosecond spectroscopy, molecules were mixed together in a vacuum tube in which an ultrafast laser beamed two pulses. The first pulse supplied the energy for the reaction, and the second examined the ongoing action. The characteristic spectra, or light patterns, from the molecules were then studied to determine the structural changes of the molecules. Zewail’s discovery enabled scientists to gain more control over the outcome of the chemical reaction, and it was expected to have many applications. Zewail also used elements of femtochemistry to invent a 4D electron microscope, with which operators were able to investigate the dynamics of atoms one billion times faster than they could with previous microscopes.   In 1991 Zewail designed the four-dimensional (4D) ultrafast electron microscope to help understand the complexity and nature of physical, chemical and biological transformations. His book ‘The 4D Visualization of Matter’ was published in 2014. [4]

“With femtosecond spectroscopy we can for the first time observe in ‘slow motion’ what happens as the reaction barrier is crossed,” the Nobel Assembly said in its press release announcing Zewail as the winner of the 1999 prize for chemistry. “Scientists the world over are studying processes with femtosecond spectroscopy in gases, in fluids and in solids, on surfaces and in polymers. Applications range from how catalysts function and how molecular electronic components must be designed, to the most delicate mechanisms in life processes and how the medicines of the future should be produced.” [4]

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’s work shattered this picture. Through elegant experiments, his group unravelled reaction dynamics, clarified molecular pathways and illuminated the quantum-mechanical evolution of atoms in molecules. The classic tool for him was the pump–probe experiment. Here the first pulse (the pump) started a chemical reaction, and the second (the probe) monitored what happened next. In this way he and his team took snapshots of vibrational flow, state rearrangement and reaction products. These revealed a much deeper role for coherence than anyone had anticipated.

After his Nobel Prize, Zewail’s focus shifted towards a new form of microscopy that used ultrafast pulses of electrons to track reactions in space and time at the atomic scale. It was no secret that he hoped (like Pauling) to win a second Nobel Prize: Zewail was not one to rest on his laurels. Once again, truly elegant science resulted.

Generations of talented students benefited greatly from his insight. He longed to boil down complex phenomena to the simplest underlying dynamics. He would urge his co-workers to avoid getting mired in detail. A very, very busy man, he still kept close tabs on his sub-basement labs. He would pop in during an experiment without warning, poke around, and start asking questions, saying he just wanted to “smell the cooking”.

His career and influence were shaped by the view that science transcends political borders. One early incident illustrates this. In January 1983, he organized the International Conference on Photochemistry and Photobiology at his alma mater in Alexandria. He was clearly a rising star, but the work that would lead to the Nobel had barely started. The conference was a major milestone in his career, attracting a stunning collection of distinguished international scientists, with an obvious subtext of bootstrapping progress for Egyptian science in general.

Given the tumultuous politics of the region then, as now, it was no surprise that as soon as Israeli scientists arrived, most of the Arab representatives were ordered by their governments to leave. Zewail surely would have expected this and could have taken the easy way out – asking his Israeli friends (who were numerous) to stay away. Instead he publicly denounced at the conference the destructive acts of the same governments he was trying to help guide to modernity.

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. [2]

Contributions to Science  [5]

Ahmed Zewail’s main work was as a pioneer and a leader on femtochemistry – an area of physical chemistry that studies the chemical reactions that occur in just a matter of femtoseconds. The timescales are incredibly small – one femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second. Using a rapid technique of ultrafast lasers (which consisted of ultrashort laser pulses), he realized that it was possible for chemical reactions to be mapped in detail and a study of bond rupture and bond formation at a fundamental level could then be made.

While Zewail was continuing his studies on the redistributions of vibrational energy, he began new studies and works on more brief time resolutions for molecules showcasing diverse rational motions and chemical processes.

Over his lifetime Zewail published over 600 papers and 14 books, including “The Chemical Bond: Structure and Dynamics” in 1992 and “Physical Biology: From Atoms to Medicine” in 2008.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1999  [1]

In 1999 Ahmed Zewail received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, he was the third Egyptian national but first in the field of science to win this prize.

Prize motivation: “for his studies of the transition states of chemical reactions using femtosecond spectroscopy.”  Prize share: 1/1 

Political Work

Zewail’s dedication to science also led to political work. Like his father, he worked for the government. During the 4th of July, 2009 speech held at Cairo University, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, announced a new program of Science Envoys as part of the fresh start between the people from the United States and the Muslims all over the world. And in January the following year, Bruce Alberts, Elias Zerhouni, and Ahmed Zewail became the first ever science emissaries to Islam.

Zewail was selected as a member of the American PCAST or the Presidential Council of Advisors in Science and Technology from 2009 to 2013. This is an advisory group of America’s pioneering and leading engineers and scientists who give advice to the President and Vice President and put together guidelines in the areas of science, technology, and invention or innovation. [5]

After receiving the Nobel, Dr. Zewail devoted time to improving scientific research in Egypt.

Instead of Egyptians’ going abroad for doctoral studies, as he had, he wanted to create an independent, cutting-edge research institution in Egypt. And with others he did, in Cairo: the  Zewail city of science and technology, which  is described as “a Caltech in Egypt.”

The cornerstone was laid in 2000, but the project languished until the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Dr. Zewail, who led the board of trustees, spearheaded fund-raising, mostly from individuals. Zewail City opened its classrooms to students in 2013, and there are now 535 students enrolled.

Part of Dr. Zewail’s vision was to restore the Arab world to its historical place as a center of learning. In an op-ed article published in The International New York Times in 2013, Dr. Zewail wrote: “Westerners often forget Egypt’s long history of educational accomplishment. Al Azhar University, a center of Islamic learning, predates Oxford and Cambridge by centuries. Cairo University, founded in 1908, has been a center of enlightenment for the whole Arab world.”

Dr. Zewail acknowledged that the Middle East had fallen far behind.

“A part of the world that pioneered science and mathematics during Europe’s Dark Ages is now lost in a dark age of illiteracy and knowledge deficiency,” he wrote. “With the exception of Israel, the region’s scientific output is modest at best.”

Dr. Zewail was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a foreign member of academies in other countries, including Britain, Russia, France and China. He was an author or co-author of 600 scientific papers.

In February, Caltech held a symposium titled “Science and Society” to celebrate Dr. Zewail’s 70th birthday. Before a packed auditorium, he spoke of his efforts to expand research in his native country and the importance of holding to a vision.

“What do you do after you get the Nobel Prize?” Dr. Zewail said. “It’s my choice, but hopefully it’s a choice that will make an impact. At Caltech, you dream, and you dream big, and the sky is the limit.”  [6]

Personal Details

“My biological children were all “made in America”. I have two daughters, Maha, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas, Austin, and Amani, a junior at Berkeley,  both of whom I am very proud. I met Dema, my wife, by a surprising chance, a fairy tale. In 1988 it was announced that I was a winner of the King Faisal International Prize.

In March of 1989, I went to receive the award from Saudi Arabia, and there I met Dema; her father was receiving the same prize in literature.

We met in March, got engaged in July and married in September, all of the same year, 1989. Dema has her M.D. from Damascus University, and completed a Master’s degree in Public Health at UCLA. We have two young sons, Nabeel and Hani, and both bring joy and excitement to our life. Dema is a wonderful mother, and is my friend and confidante.” [5]

Death and funeral

An obituary on Aug. 6 about the chemist Ahmed H. Zewail, using information from a friend, referred incorrectly to Dr. Zewail’s health. He learned that he had cancer in 2013; he had not “been treated for spinal cancer for about 10 years.” (The cause of his death has not been released.)

Zewail died aged 70 on the morning of August 2, 2016. He was recovering from  spinal cord cancer, however, the exact cause of his death is unknown. Chemist and Nobel Prize laureate Ahmed Zewail, who died in the United States on Tuesday, was killed by a “sudden virus”, according to Sherif Foad, spokesman for the scientist. In a phone-in with the “Hona al-Asema” talk-show on the satellite channel CBC, Foad spoke of recent events in Zewail’s life, including the illness that led to his death.

Zewail visited his daughter in San Francisco a week ago and became later infected with a “sudden virus” that prevented him from speaking properly, said Foad. Unable to talk, Zewail communicated with his media advisor over WhatsApp and email until two days before death, Foad said.  [7]

A military funeral was held for Zewail on August 7, 2016, at the El-Mosheer Tantawy mosque in Cairo, Egypt. Those attending included President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, Defence Minister Sedki Sobhi, former President Adly Mansour, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab and heart surgeon Magdi Yacoub. The funeral prayers were led by Ali Gomaa, former Grand Mufti of Egypt. [ 2 ]

Ahmed Zewail died aged 70, on 2 August 2016. He is survived by his wife, Dema (nee Faham), a doctor, whom he married in 1989, and his four children: Maha, Amani, Nabeel, and Hani.

With his death, we have lost a talented scientist and true statesman of the world.

Awards and honors [ 3]

In 1999, Zewail became the first Egyptian and the first Arab to receive a science Nobel Prize when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  Zewail gave his Nobel Lecture on “Femtochemistry: Atomic-Scale Dynamics of the Chemical Bond Using Ultrafast Lasers”. In 1999, he received Egypt’s highest state honor, the Grand Collar of the Nile.  In October 2006, Zewail received the Albert Einstein World Award of Science for “his pioneering development of the new field of femtoscience and for his seminal contributions to the revolutionary discipline of physical biology, creating new ways for better understanding the functional behavior of biological systems by directly visualizing them in the four dimensions of space and time.”

Other international awards include the King Faisal International Prize (1989),  Wolf Prize in Chemistry (1993) awarded to him by the Wolf Foundation,  the Tolman Award (1997),  the Robert A. Welch Award (1997), the Othmer Gold Medal (2009), the Priestley Medal (2011) from the American Chemical Society  and the Davy Medal (2011) from the Royal Society.

Zewail was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) in 2001. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in 2002.  He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Lund University in Sweden in May 2003 and was made a Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.  Cambridge University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science in 2006.  In May 2008, Zewail received an honorary doctorate from Complutense University of Madrid.  In February 2009, Zewail was awarded an honorary doctorate in arts and sciences by the University of Jordan.  In May 2010, he gave the commencement address at Southwestern University.  On 3 October 2011 he was awarded an honorary doctorate in science from the University of Glasgow.  On 19 May 2014, he was awarded an honorary degree from Yale University.  The Zewail city of science and technology, established in 2000 and revived in 2011, is named in his honour.

Awards [3]    

King Faisal International Prize (Saudi Arabia) (1989)

Peter Debye Award (1996)

  1. Bright Wilson Award (1997)

Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1999)

Order of the Nile (1999)

  1. O. Lawrence Award (1998)

The Franklin Medal (United States) (1998)

Paul Karrer Gold Medal (1998)

Tolman Award (1997)

Wolf Prize (Chemistry) (1993)

ForMemRS (2001)[2]

Albert Einstein World Award of Science (2006)

Othmer Gold Medal (2009)

Priestley Medal (2011)

Davy Medal (2011)

Honorary Degrees [3]

Zewail has been bestowed honorary degrees by the following institutions: University of Oxford, UK (1991); The American University in Cairo, Egypt (1993); Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven, Belgium (1997); University of Pennsylvania, USA (1997); University of Lausanne, Switzerland (1997); Swinburne University of Technology, Australia (1999); Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport, Egypt (1999); D.Sc. Alexandria University, Egypt (1999); D.Sc. University of New Brunswick, Canada (2000); Sapienza University of Rome, Italy (2000); and University of Liège, Belgium (2000).

After the awarding of the Nobel Prize in 1999, I continued to serve as a faculty member at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) as the Linus Pauling Chair Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Physics, and the Director of the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology (UST) and the NSF Laboratory for Molecular Sciences (LMS). Current research is devoted to dynamical chemistry and biology, with a focus on the physics of elementary processes in complex systems. A major research frontier is the new development of “4D ultrafast diffraction and microscopy”, making possible the imaging of transient structures in space and time with atomic-scale resolution.

Special Honors [3]

King Faisal International Prize in Science (1989).

First Linus Pauling Chair, Caltech (1990).

Wolf Prize in Chemistry (1993).

Order of Merit, first class (Sciences & Arts), from President Mubarak (1995).

Robert A. Welch Award in Chemistry (1997).

Benjamin Franklin Medal, Franklin Institute, USA (1998).

Egypt Postage Stamps, with Portrait (1998); the Fourth Pyramid (1999).

Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1999).

Grand Collar of the Nile, Highest State Honor, conferred by President Mubarak (1999).


  1. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1999/zewail/biographical/
  2. https://www.nature.com/articles/537168a#article-info
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmed_Zewail
  4. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ahmed-Zewail
  5. https://www.famousscientists.org/ahmed-zewail/
  6. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/06/science/ahmed-h-zewail-nobel-prize-winning-chemist-dies-at-70.html
  7. https://www.egyptindependent.com/nobel-prize-winner-zewail-killed-sudden-virus-spokesman/


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