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.