Looking Back on the Life of Ahmed Zewail

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Nobel Prize winner Ahmed Zewail died last week. Zewail was a brilliant scientist with long-standing ties to ACS. He was a former associate editor of The Journal of Physical Chemistry, a recipient of the Priestley Medal, ACS’ highest award, and even had an ACS award named in his honor: The Ahmed Zewail Award in Ultrafast Science and Technology. It’s only natural that several current and former members of the editorial teams for The Journal of Physical Chemistry wanted to share remembrances of their colleague.

Were you a former colleague of Ahmed Zewail’s? Did his work influence you? Were you inspired by his tireless advocacy for science, both in and outside the lab? After you’ve finished the article, feel free to share your memories and feelings in the comments.

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George Schatz, Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Physical Chemistry:

Zewail was the leading figure in gas phase femtochemistry as the field first got developed in the 1980s and 90s. Key to his work in that period was his demonstration that femtosecond resolved measurements performed on molecular systems that were already understood based on other experiments such as molecular beam measurements or spectroscopy studies, could be studied with femtosecond methods to provide new but understandable insights. And moreover, Zewail’s work was comprehensive in that it included both new measurements and computational/theoretical support.

After the Nobel Prize, Zewail embarked on a new field related to time-resolved electron imaging, where he again broke new ground, and demonstrated that important chemical insights could be provided by his methods.

Zewail was both a superb scientist and a citizen of the world.  He played an important role in building up science in Egypt, while at the same time creating a significant research center that developed leading edge technologies at Caltech.  I found that he was superb (and tireless) at linking leading-edge science to the big picture of the role of science in helping developing economies.  He will be greatly missed.

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Martin Gruebele, Associate Editor of Journal of the American Chemical Society, former Associate Editor and Editorial Advisory Board member of The Journal of Physical Chemistry, former postdoc of Ahmed Zewail:

Ahmed was always a great communicator to the public. I remember fondly a time in 1990 when he had the idea of creating an animated video to illustrate the concepts of femtochemistry visually. I (a postdoc in the group at the time) and Marcos Dantus (a graduate student then, now a professor at Michigan State University) took over the task. This was a time when 3-D computer graphic animation was in its infancy, but we delivered a short movie, which Ahmed presented to an audience of hundreds at a public lecture, to good effect. Ahmed always worked at the state-of-the-art, whether it was in research, science education and outreach, or global problems where science might be able to help.

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Marcos Dantus, former Editorial Advisory Board member of The Journal of Physical Chemistry, former graduate student of Ahmed Zewail:

For Ahmed, the most inspiring words were “that is impossible.” As the graduate student that got to build Femtoland I, and later on as a postdoc the Ultrafast Electron Diffraction UED laboratory, we faced numerous technical hurdles. We had brainstorming sessions that helped us move one step closer to the goal. Ahmed had little patience for dwelling on the hardships, or listening why the project will not work; he just wanted to hear how we planned to move forward. Once in a while, however, nothing seemed to work. That is when he would look at you full of excitement and say: “can you imagine how significant it will be when you make it work!” That was usually enough for me to go back to the lab and make things happen.

Beyond the scientific breakthroughs, which continued until his unexpected passing, I was extremely impressed with Ahmed’s dedication to improving science education and fostering democracy in the Middle East. While most people saw (and still see) complexity in the Middle East, Ahmed saw a simple truth: “fundamentally, people want peace and a better life for their children.” 

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The Journal of Physical Chemistry will soon be honoring Ahmed Zewail with a special virtual issue collecting papers he published in the journal, including his most cited paper. Follow the journal on Twitter and Facebook for updates.

If you have comments or questions for the author of this post, please e-mail: Axial@acs.org.