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Death of a science icon

Published online 3 August 2016

Nobel laureate and laser femtochemistry pioneer Ahmed Zewail dies at age of 70 leaving behind many science breakthroughs and an enduring legacy.

Pakinam Amer

Zewail is a symbol of achievement for many Arabs.
Zewail is a symbol of achievement for many Arabs.
© Zewail City for Science and Technology 
The passing of Egyptian-born Ahmed Zewail, a science icon and one of the world’s most eminent chemists, has been met with worldwide grief. 

Zewail was the first and only Arab scientist to have won a Nobel science prize, and is the pioneering father of femtochemistry, the realm of physical chemistry that uses ultrashort laser flashes to study fundamental chemical reactions down to the scale of atomic motion.

His femtosecond time resolution means that scientists can now freeze atoms in motion and study the evolution of molecular structures as reactions unfold and pass through their transition states. 

The sole recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the Egyptian-American scientist was also science and technology advisor to President Barack Obama and the first US science envoy to the Middle East. As well, he was the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry, professor of physics, and director of the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).  

In 2008, during his time at Caltech, Zewail has impressed the scientific community again when he and his team developed "4D" electron microscopy, a technology that captures and recreates the movement and dynamics of fleeting changes in the structure and shape of matter, in real-time, and real-space. 

Thanks to Zewail’s brand of electron microscopy, scientists can now observe the static structure of objects with a resolution that is better than a billionth of a metre in length. At the time, Zewail has - very poetically - stated that it was always his dream to look not just at time, but also at space; to “see the architecture of a complex system at the atomic scale, as it changes over time, be it for physical or biological matter." 

Beyond advances in the lab, in Egypt perhaps Zewail will be equally remembered for his public service through tireless contribution to the science and education sphere as well as for his scientific feats. His milestone project, Zewail City for Science and Technology, is proclaimed by Egypt as an advent of a science renaissance and is considered a national project.

During the post-Arab-Spring fervor, the university and science hub, founded by Zewail, opened its doors for students in 2012 after some delays and hiccups.

Zewail was decorated with the Order of the Grand Collar of the Nile, Egypt's highest state honor, and was named to the Order of Légion d'Honneur by the President of France. He was an elected member of academies and learned societies including the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of London, the American Philosophical Society, the French Academy, the Russian Academy, the Chinese Academy, and the Swedish Academy. He bears countless honorary degrees, including from Oxford and Cambridge universities.  

In Egypt, he’s regarded as a model of resilience. Born to humble beginnings in Damanhour in 1946 and living and studying in Alexandria under less-than-favorable conditions, the young chemist persevered against adversity and shone even brighter when he finally moved to the United States (in other words greener pastures for science) where he earned a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. From there he moved to the prestigious UC Berkeley then to Caltech.  

After clinching worldwide fame thanks to his science breakthroughs, and a Nobel prize, he returned to Egypt frequently. Often outspoken about the state of science in Egypt and the region, he pushed for the revival of curiosity-driven approaches, a return to fundamental science research; he fought for solid investments into research and outreach programs and an atmosphere that encourages intellectual exchange between Egypt and the international science community. 

It was Zewail’s maxim not to focus on political upheaval in the Middle East; not what has been lost or what went wrong, “but what can be done now?” 

In a commentary to Nature Middle East more than two years earlier, he wrote that “revolutionary changes, not incremental ones, have to take place in education and scientific thought.”  

And in his absence, as the region endures trying times on many fronts except perhaps in science where there are real efforts directed towards a possible albeit slow revival and where there’s budding hope, these words ring truest. And it is this budding hope that Zewail embodied as he set out on to transform the culture of science and learning altogether in his home country. And in the eyes of many in this region, especially among the younger generations, Zewail is, in fact, larger than science; a success story born out of hardship, a victory over the odds.