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Scientist of the Week 2: Ahmed Zewail

This weeks Scientist of the Week #SOTW is Ahmed Zewail, the famous, Egyptian scientist & Nobel laureate, for his amazing research in femtochemistry: studying chemical reactions across femtoseconds (1 fs= 10-15 seconds). 


Born on February 26, 1946 in a city not so far from Alexandria, Egypt; Zewail “lived an enjoyable childhood”.  His family’s dream was to see Zewail achieve a high degree abroad and return to Egypt to become a university professor.  Zewail completed his degree in Alexandria University with First Class Honours and it is the same place where he realised his strong passion for science especially the physical sciences.  

Zewail then went onto complete his Masters and PhD in Alexandria University where he was employed as a demonstrator (“Moeid”) where he gave lectures to undergraduates.  He then travelled o the United States where he completed his PhD in the University of Pennsylvania with advisor Robin M. Hochstrasser. Zewail then moved to Berkeley, U.S.A to complete a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley with advisor Charles B. Harris.

After completing his post-doc, Zewail was awarded a faculty appointment at the California Institute of Technology where he has been working ever since 1976. In 1990 he was made the first Linus Pauling Chair in Chemical Physics.

Key research / awards

Of the notable works that Zewail has worked through; is his work in femtochemistry, studying chemical reactions across femtoseconds (1 fs= 10-15 seconds).  Before the late 1980’s it was almost impossible to study the events that occur in a chemical reaction, however Zewail was able to view the motion of atoms and molecules based on new laser technology capable of producing light flashes just tens of femtoseconds in duration (a.k.a femtosecond spectroscopy).  

For his contributions to science and for his public service, Dr. Zewail has garnered honours from around the globe. Fifty Honorary Degrees in the sciences, arts, philosophy, law, medicine, and humane letters have been conferred on him, including those from Oxford University, Cambridge University, Peking University, École Normale Supérieure, Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, and Alexandria University.

Recent research

4D Microscopy:  Professor Zewail’s current research is focused on the structural dynamics in chemistry and biology with focus on the physics of elementary processes in complex systems. The main research is based in producing four-dimensional (4D) ultrafast electron microscopy and diffraction for atomic –scale visualization in space and time.  Together with spectroscopy and large-scale computations, the goal is to understand complexity and nature of physical, chemical and biological transformations.
Prof. Zewail also is devoted to giving public lectures to enhance awareness of the value of knowledge gained from fundamental research, and helping the population of developing countries through the promotion of science and technology for the betterment of society.

Nobel Peace Prize

At 5:40 in the morning on Tuesday, October 12, Ahmed Zewail got a phone call - it was the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences informing him he had won the 1999 Nobel Prize in chemistry. The citation reads, in part, that Zewail "is being rewarded for his pioneering investigation of fundamental chemical reactions, using ultra-short laser flashes on the time scale on which the reactions actually occur"...  Dr Zewail studied atoms and molecules in “slow motion” during a reaction and seen what actually happens when chemical bonds beak and new ones are created.

Described as the world’s fastest camera, this utilises laser flashes of such short duration that are at the time scale on which the reactions actually happen – femtoseconds (fs). One femtosecond is 10-15 seconds that is 0.000000000000001 seconds. This area of chemistry as named femtochemistry.

Femtochemistry helps us understand why certain chemical reactions take place but not others, and also determine the speed and yields of different reactions.  This will aid the future research into the mechanisms of life and how the medicines of the future should be produced.

“At the age of 21, as a Moeid, I believed that behind every universal phenomenon there must be beauty and simplicity in its description. This belief remains true today.”
-          Ahmed H. Zewail, Autobiography