Ahmed Zewail, Egyptian-American Nobel Prize laureate, dies

Sunday 07/08/2016
Ahmed Zewail after being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in Stockholm, in December 1999.

Cairo - Ahmed Zewail, an ac­claimed Egyptian- American scientist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1999 and advised presidents in both Egypt and the United States, has died. He was 70.

Zewail died August 2nd in the United States where he was on the faculty of the California Institute of Technology. No cause of death was announced.

“Ahmed was the quintessen­tial scholar and global citizen,” said Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum in a statement. “He spent a lifetime developing in­struments that interrogate nature in fundamentally new ways and defining new directions that cut across the physical and biological sciences.

“Ahmed’s fervour for discovery never abated and he serves as an inspiration to colleagues and gen­erations of students.”

Zewail was the first Arab scientist to win a Nobel Prize when he was honoured for his work in femto­science, which allowed individual atoms to be observed in extremely short time scales. He wrote ap­proximately 600 scholarly articles and 14 books and was given more than 100 international prizes and awards, Caltech said in a state­ment.

He was invited to serve on US President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisers on Science and Tech­nology, among other positions.

While he was in the United States for more than 40 years, he never forgot his home country. Zewail was active in the political situation in his native Egypt, having advised leaders for the past 20 years and pushed to advance the cause of sci­ence in Egypt.

“He never betrayed the hopes the people pinned on him,” said Musta­fa al-Fiqqi, a former government official and a secondary school classmate of Zewail. “He worked tirelessly to convince Egypt’s lead­ership that this country could not move ahead without science.”

Zewail was often whisked from the airport to the presidential pal­ace to meet with president Hosni Mubarak. He advised the ruling army council after Mubarak and then Islamist president Muham­mad Morsi.

Current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appointed him to a special consultative council and helped Zewail found the Zewail City for Science and Technology in 2014 in Giza governorate. The facility, ac­cording to Mohamed Abou el-Ghar, a gynaecologist and a member of its board of trustees, aims to create Egypt’s next generation of scien­tists.

“Students admitted into the city are thoroughly selected based on their scientific excellence,” Abou el-Ghar said. “The project seeks to make science and technology the pillars of Egypt’s renaissance.”

Zewail convinced scores of Egyp­tian scientists living abroad to re­turn to join the project and contrib­ute to Egypt’s progress.

“Westerners are not geniuses and we are not stupid,” Zewail would say. “Westerners only support those who fail until they succeed, while we put hurdles on the way of those who succeed until they fail.”

Zewail was kind and wanted to help everybody, his niece Heba Salah said.

“He always called to check from the United States, asking about whether there was something he could offer to any of the family members,” Salah said.

Sherif Fouad, Zewail’s spokes­man, said that by establishing the science and technology city, Zewail had sown the seeds of scientific progress.

“These seeds will hopefully pro­duce fruits in the future,” he said. “The faculty and the students in­sist on completing the journey Ze­wail started to its end.”

Zewail was born February 26th, 1946, in Damanhour, Egypt, and earned bachelor’s and master’s de­grees from Alexandria University before earning a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the faculty at Caltech in 1976. Zewail is survived by his wife, Dema Faham, and four children.

One of the last things Zewail did in Cairo was to buy a grave on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital. On the grave he wrote this verse from the Quran: “Can those be equal, they who know and they who know not?”