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Chemistry Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail dies at age 70

Caltech chemist will be remembered for pioneering field of femtochemistry and for promoting science education internationally

by Mitch Jacoby
August 3, 2016

Remembering Ahmed Zewail: Chemist, diplomat, storyteller
Listen to Ahmed Zewail recount some of his more memorable experiences as a young chemist coming to America from Egypt in this 2011 interview with C&EN’s Mitch Jacoby.
Credit: C&EN
Remembering Ahmed Zewail: Chemist, diplomat, storyteller
Listen to Ahmed Zewail recount some of his more memorable experiences as a young chemist coming to America from Egypt in this 2011 interview with C&EN’s Mitch Jacoby.
Credit: C&EN

Ahmed H. Zewail, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and a professor of physics at California Institute of Technology and the recipient of the 1999 Chemistry Nobel Prize, has died. He was 70.

Zewail’s name is synonymous with femtochemistry, the branch of ultrafast laser spectroscopy he and his research group pioneered for interrogating chemical bonds as they are being formed and broken. In addition to that body of Nobel-Prize-winning work, the Caltech researcher was also well known for his seminal studies on ultrafast electron microscopy for imaging molecules.

The Egyptian-born researcher was also well known beyond the halls of academic science. For years he crisscrossed the globe serving as an international science ambassador and a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology. In that capacity, he promoted scientific and educational collaborations between the U.S. and countries in the Middle East—part of a plan to foster friendlier relations and improve U.S. standing in that region.

Zewail held U.S. and Egyptian citizenship and maintained close ties with his place of birth long after moving to the U.S. in the late 1960s. In one show of solidarity with his native Egypt, Zewail quickly headed to the Middle East as the events of the Arab Spring unfolded in early 2011 on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities. While there he promoted peaceful regime change and served as a moderator between students and government bodies.

In another display of commitment to his native Egypt, he founded Zewail City of Science and Technology, a university and research center based in Cairo. It just recently began admitting students.

“Ahmed Zewail was an extraordinary scientist who cared about the world and making a contribution to society as an Egyptian and as an American,” says Jacqueline K. Barton, Zewail’s longtime Caltech colleague and scientific collaborator.

She adds, he also cared enormously about Caltech, where he got the chance “to realize his dream of watching kinetics on the timescale of femtoseconds, or as he described it, the timescale of making and breaking chemical bonds.”

“He was a very wise man and a good friend of mine,” says Mostafa A. El-Sayed of the Georgia Institute of Technology. “Ahmed was full of life and dedicated to everything he did. He was the kind of person who always gave 100%.”

“Caltech lost an excellent faculty member and we have all lost someone dear to us,” El-Sayed adds. “He will be sorely missed in the U.S and in Egypt.”

“Dr. Zewail was a leader inside and outside the lab,” says Thomas Connelly, Jr., executive director and CEO of the American Chemical Society. “He was an exemplar scholar and statesman who will be sincerely missed.” Zewail won ACS’s highest honor, the Priestley Medal, in 2011. The society handed out its first annual Ahmed Zewail Award in Ultrafast Science & Technology in 2007.



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Comments (August 3, 2016 10:47 AM)
It's a huge loss to chemistry. RIP Prof. Ahmed Zewail.
Prof. Antonio Regla (August 3, 2016 1:28 PM)
I was very saddened to learn the news of Prof. Zewail's passing away, he will certainly be missed by many around the world who benefitted from his contributions to science and education. My condolences to his family and friends.
Best regards,
Antonio Regla
Latifa NEGADI (August 3, 2016 3:31 PM)
He was a great man. RIP
Rich Eisenberg (August 3, 2016 3:33 PM)
Ahmed Zewail was a special member of the global chemistry community. He understood how this community could work together to influence positive change around the world. He was truly a beacon, even on the fastest timescales, for all of us. He will be missed.
Mohammad Ishaq (August 3, 2016 3:42 PM)
Deeply saddened and shocked to learn about his death. He was indeed a great scientist, educationalist, and a caring human being.
Pray for his soul rests in peace.
(August 3, 2016 3:51 PM)
GOD bless his soul.
Adel Halasa (August 3, 2016 5:20 PM)
I always admired such brighten scientists proud of his contribution and personality a true Arab scientists who set an example for all of to fellow
Alejandro Barrientos (August 3, 2016 4:08 PM)
Rest in Peace Dr. Zewail and thank you for dedicating your life to science!
Dr. Somanath Dev (August 3, 2016 4:08 PM)
He is a very genius scientist. He contributed a lot in Chemistry field.
Charles Pathirana (August 3, 2016 4:09 PM)
Very surprising news. Just saw his picture on the front-back of the latest C&E News introducing the Welch Foundation Annual Conference to be held in October.
Samy El-Shall (August 3, 2016 4:10 PM)
Ahmed was dedicated to support science in Egypt. He was the best inspiration for many young Egyptian scientists and he believed they should be able to succeed if they have the resources and the support of the society. He was a good friend who visited my lab in at VCU in 1992 and also in October 1999 where he gave his first lecture after the announcement of his Noble Prize at the International Clusters Conference organized by VCU in Richmond.
Dr. Praveen Kumar (August 3, 2016 4:12 PM)
"Professor Ahmed Zewail was a great scientist and father of femtochemistry/femtotechnology". I learned lots of "Quantum Control" from his pioneering work.
Choonghee Rhee (August 3, 2016 4:37 PM)
Sorry to hear about the sad news on the greatest scientist of the world.
Dr. Lawrence Schaufler (August 3, 2016 4:56 PM)
Dr. Zewail was a remarkable man and scientist. As one of his students, I found his intellectual curiosity to be inspiring, even on topics that traditional thought found to be 'impossible'. He was one of the most memorable professors I had the privilege of knowing at Caltech.
Dr. Saganuwan Alhaji Saganuwan (August 3, 2016 5:10 PM)
Contributions made by Zewail in the field of femtochemistry in particular and science in general are eminent. Hence his name should be immortalized.
Dr.Khaled saoud, Virginia coomoneealth university in Qater (August 3, 2016 5:15 PM)
I had the pleasure to meet and know Dr.Zewail as a master student at the physics department at Virginia commonwaelth university during his visit to my PhD advisor Dr.samy El shall who have been a long time friend of Dr.Zewail. During that meeting I asked him for advice as a young researcher and what he told me that I should always be careful when I draw conclusions and to repeat the experiment many time to ensure reproducibility and to report results like they are. Science community and the Arab world lost a great icon who was motivating many young researchers like myself. May Allah reward him and he will be always remembered.
Maraizu Ukaegbu (August 3, 2016 5:29 PM)
May his soul rest in peace.

May the science community always remember his work and contribution to science and humanity
Salil (August 3, 2016 5:46 PM)
He will dearly missed as contributor to science and technology but most as humanitarian! Let's there be peace!
Mudassiru Salihu (August 3, 2016 5:50 PM)
My deep and sincere condolence to Prof's family, Friends, Love ones, ACS and other international communities for the lost. It is really a great lost to science world of today. RIP our mentor RIP our model
Mary Baker (August 3, 2016 5:58 PM)
So sad to hear this - I was fortunate to meet him when he visited and spoke at the American University in Cairo. He belonged to science and will long be remembered.
Yahye Esse (August 3, 2016 6:05 PM)
RIP Chemistry Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail
Wagdy Sous (August 3, 2016 6:11 PM)
He is from my mother land, I'm really proud of his achievements in the Chemistry field and very sorry for losing him. May God bless his soul.
Naser L Rezk (August 3, 2016 7:23 PM)
Dr. Ahmed Hassan Zewail knows how to give for humanity. As an Egyptian-American scientist, I'm proud of him. Dr. Zewail is the father of femtochemistry. He established an ideal model for international science education. Nobel Prize in Chemistry Y-1999 is not all what he achieved, also molecular science is fast growing science due to part of his work. The contribution of professor Zeail is a unique example for whom want to follow his footsteps.

Abdelnaser L Rezk, PhD
Associate professor, UNC-Chapel Hill, NC, USA & Taibah University, Almadianh Almonawwarah, KSA
Anyin Li (August 3, 2016 9:53 PM)
Beyond his own field, he had several quite "unconventional" research papers on mass spectrometry.
What an insightful, achieving scientist...
What a loss in the science community...
May him rest in peace.
Puru Jena (August 3, 2016 10:46 PM)
I am saddened to learn of the passing of Prof. Zewail. He was not only a brilliant scientist but a remarkable human being, kind and considerate. I had the pleasure of meeting him at the International Symposium on Clusters and Nano-structures which I had organized in Richmond, Virginia in October 1999, weeks after he was awarded the Nobel Prize. When I told him how grateful we are that he kept his promise, his answer was simple. He told me that his grand mother had impressed upon him that a man should always keep his promise and he never forgot that advice. It spoke volumes of him as a man. The world will miss him.
Barrie Turnham (August 3, 2016 11:34 PM)
I wonder if he would have been one of the Moslems Donald Trump would have barred from the US.
I was a Stanford grad student in the 1960's in Michel Boudart's group that had more international students than Americans (as a Canadian I was a second-class foreign student). Our common regard for science was greater than any differences that we may have had on a political or cultural basis.

Barrie Turnham, PhD
Retired instructor, North Island College, Courtenay, BC
Prof. Debashis Ray (August 4, 2016 12:34 AM)
Shocking news to the Chemistry family. His contributions made the term 'femtochemistry' familiar to our students like 'nanochemistry'.
Prof . A.K.M. Muzammel Huque (August 4, 2016 12:59 AM)
Ahmed Zewail is the father of femtochemistry , the branch of ultrafast laser spectroscopy .
Dr. Md Abdus Subhan (August 4, 2016 4:06 AM)
I was lucky. I met him at Osaka University, Japan when I was a PhD student there. May Almighty bless his departed soul.
Dr. Md Abdus Subhan, Professor of Chemistry, SUST, Sylhet, Bangladesh.
Amal Abd Elkarim (August 4, 2016 8:50 AM)
Dr Ahmed Zewail the Egyptian scientist gives a lot for all the world, I am proud of him
he loved Egypt very much
god forgive to him
SAHMOUNE Mohamed Nasser (August 4, 2016 10:52 AM)
My condolences to his family and friends.
Best regards
M.N. Sahmoune
Erhard Rothe (August 4, 2016 10:59 AM)
His femtosecond work, while technically challenging, produced results that were readily accessible and were really breathtaking. They must have left many thinking "I wish I could have done that."
Sara Abdou (August 4, 2016 12:17 PM)
He gave us hope that it is possible to add something unique to life although all difficulties you might had or still experience in your whole career
Dr. Mahmoud Lotfy (August 4, 2016 2:07 PM)
Professor Ahmed Zewail born to survive by his endless contributions in and out the universities allover the world.
May Allah bless his soul. RIP
Mark Zhen (August 4, 2016 2:23 PM)
Professor Zewail was not only an exceptional scientist, he was also a great Statesman, a strong advocate for global collaboration and a great product of himself of diversity and globalization.
Irshad Ahmed (August 4, 2016 2:40 PM)
It is a sad day for science to loose not only one of its preeminent chemists but also a gentlemen with a great heart and soul who gave so much back to the world. His work in and outside of lab was inspiring to a whole generation and many more to come. He will live on forever through his contributions to science. May his soul rest in peace.
Mona mohsen (August 4, 2016 2:46 PM)
Pr.Dr.Ahmad zeweil ,the femtosecond scientist was a scientist of the world by his amazing contributions not only in chemistry but also in in biology,physics and medecine.
Hatem Amin (August 5, 2016 7:50 AM)
R.I.P. Dr. Ahmed Zewail (Chemistry Nobel Laureate). He left our world but his contributions will be always remembered. Dr. Zewail was not only a pioneering scientist but also a great man. He was a source of inspiration for many young Egyptian students and scientists. He was a role model for me and our generation (specially foreign researchers). I am always proud of you and your contributions to science and international society.
Francesco CELANI (August 5, 2016 9:15 AM)
I was very sad to know that Nobelist Ahmed Zeweil almost-abruptly died on August 2, 2016. I "crosssed" only recently the excellent works of Prof. Zeweil because his explanation of cathalitic effects, in the time range of less 1 ps, was (according to our experimental group, mainly Physics), one of the most probable model to explain some of our not-explanable results of "Anomalous Excess Heat Effects" using cathalitic materials (Constantan with submicrometric surfaces) reacting, at high temperatures, with Hydrogen gas. Because such idea/ipothesis, we quoted/elaborated in the text is main idea (and consequence, according to our observations), in our most recent paper [J. Condensed Matter Nucl. Sci. 19,(2016) 29-45; Ref.#7] published few weeks before. I will miss the creativity of Prof. Zeweil and his special ability to make top-level experiments without using huge amounts of money.
bagban altamash (August 5, 2016 10:48 AM)
observing kinetics in specific reaction is not that easy.....dr ahmed zewail is one of those scientist whu made all of us realize a molcule lives and dies in true his invention of famtosecond...m still in msc hope to become atleast a follower of him...may allah forgive all his deeds in peace genius
Dr. Ahmed Ennaoui (August 5, 2016 11:57 AM)
I am greatly saddened to learn of the passing of Professor Prof. Dr. Ahmed Hassan Zewail. We lost a great scientist, an awesome teacher and an extraordinary human being scientist. This is really sad and a great loss indeed to all of us who have had contact with him. He was a devoted professional. May his good works live on. May God bless him. May he soul rest in perfect peace. I have a compassionate thought to the immediate family of Professor Prof. Dr. Ahmed Hassan Zewail. I will always remember him with my highest gratitude
Prof Ahmed Aamouche (August 5, 2016 12:41 PM)
I remember well his response to my congratulations for 1999 chemistry noble prize. He was so humble and more motivated by the award. Unfortunately the Arab science is dropping since then. We hope that all of us will remember him as a Muslim scholar of this century and many youth will be able to follow his steeps for a better world.
Edmond B. Koker (August 8, 2016 3:33 PM)
Rest in perfect peace Prof. Zewail. You put Africa/Egypt on the scientific map of well-renowned global scholars / research scientists, and through imparting valuable chemical knowledge to those you came across in your remarkable career. Allah will receive you very kindly in heaven.
Dr.Maher Elsheikh (October 7, 2016 10:04 AM)
I knew Ahmed vert well, he was my class mate of Faculty Of Science, Alexandra University1967 and room mate in Mustafa Basha,
Alexandrai. In our younger years in Alexandria, we loved science in particular the subject of chemistry, In 1969, he travelled to the US and I travelled to England to pursue higher educations. After receiving our educations, he pursue academic life and I worked for the industry 1979- till present to work on big environmental issues such as Ozone Depletion and Global Warming . Often when we get together, we talked about the good old days. In the second week of October around 6 am 1999, I was listening to the national public radio NBR when I heard that an Egyptian american by the named Ahmed Zewail have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, indeed I felt that our dream was fulfilled.

Dr Maher Elsheikh Ph.D
Founder ITF
610 659 8730
Hossam Mohammed (November 1, 2016 12:42 PM)
RIP DR/ Ahmed zewail i felt so sad when he died
he was my leader ,my ideal
he was born in my city , i studied chemical engineering because i loved him so much
i wished i met him , i attended his funeral
there were lots of people specially youths
he made a lot for Egypt specially zewail city of science and technology

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