ABDALLA F. HASSAN | The Daily Star | March 11, 2002
When Nobel-Prize winning chemist Ahmed Zewail decided to write his autobiography, there had already been 12 or so books in Arabic written about him. He frankly admits reading three or four of them and spotting errors in the explanation of his scientific discoveries and his personal history. Then, there was talk of a movie. He was persuaded that he had better get the story straight.
Voyage through Time is part life story, part scientific discovery and part vision for change. Born in Egypt’s Nile Delta town of Damanhur and raised in adjacent Desuq, Zewail attended university in Alexandria. Later he completed his PhD in Philadelphia and carried on to University of California at Berkeley for post-doctoral research, eventually accepting a faculty appointment at Caltech University.
Before arriving in the US, he had never heard of lasers. Later, he would receive the 1999 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work with them. The prize is the first in the sciences to be won by a scientist from the Arab world.
Zewail has become a national hero. He is featured on postage stamps, streets and public squares have been renamed after him. Even his old high school in Desuq now bears his name. He has been showered with shields, medals and honorary degrees. On his arrival in Egypt soon after receiving the Nobel Prize, he received a welcome usually reserved for a “soccer team returning home victorious.”
By quantifying time in small units called femtoseconds, Zewail could penetrate the world of atoms in real-time chemical reactions — observing bonds breaking and forming, intermediate products created in fleeting transition states, and final products materializing by virtue of forces in this micro-universe. The number of femtoseconds needed to make up one second is about equal to the number of minutes in the age of our 12 billion-year-old universe.
Previously, atoms as they underwent chemical reactions were invisible. Zewail studied atoms and molecules in “slow motion,” showing that it is possible with rapid laser techniques to see atoms in a molecule move during a reaction.
Using the “fastest camera in the world,” Zewail gave dynamic vision to this motion and behavior of atoms. The femtosecond and femtochemistry soon became staples of the scientific lexicon.
He constantly preaches the concept of teamwork, and criticizes the wasta (patronage) system that has come to define “opportunity” in Egypt. Then there are the rubber stamps — a few dozen are needed to keep official paperwork moving in a slow, bureaucratic assembly line.
To travel abroad on a University of Pennsylvania fellowship, Zewail required approvals from his department, the university president and the Ministry of Higher Education.
“Bureaucracy,” he writes, “has a reputation for erecting barriers so high that useful progress comes to a halt.”
Voyage through Time recalls dozens of quirky tales and illuminating stories from life in the Nile Delta to his new encounters in America. Arab specialty foods were hard to find in Philadelphia and he purchased fuul in sealed 10-kilogram packages. Helping load the beans into the car, the sales clerk told him: “I’m sure your horse will do fine.”
He admits that one of the reasons he decided to remain in America and pursue a post-doctoral fellowship was to improve his economic status, so on his return to Egypt they would at least have a good American car — the hallmark of those returning from there. Had Zewail stayed in Egypt, he would not have had the resources to be the prize-winning chemist he is today.
Zewail’s book includes a more than just his life and science. It is his forum to address social and political issues — from the challenges developing countries face in the age of globalization, to what can be done for the have-nots, to the perceived conflicts between science and religion. Motivated by his desire to see Egypt regain a place among the nations of the developed world, Zewail steadfastly calls for improving education, minimizing bureaucracy and revising laws.
When Zewail started to reflect on what could be done in Egypt to improve the science infrastructure, he was convinced that centers of excellence had to be built. Zewail’s vision for a science institute modeled on Caltech University came a closer to realization on Jan. 1, 2000, when a ground-breaking ceremony on a 300-acre plot in Sixth October City laid the cornerstone for the new University of Science and Technology.
Before it could come to fruition, that project too fell victim to bureaucracy and the power of the state.
“The slow implementation of the plan is enough to subdue the enthusiasm of any serious person with obligations and exacting demands on his time,” acknowledges Zewail. While there is enthusiasm for the establishment of the institution, Zewail concedes, “some of the very rich were less willing to make significant contributions until they had weighed their personal benefits.”
Like all autobiographies, the memories recounted are selective. There are things Zewail chooses not to dwell on, including his first marriage, which ended in divorce.
He is now married to Dema Fahim — whose father, the Syrian scholar Chaker Fahim — won the King Faisel Prize in literature in 1989, the same year that Zewail won the prize for science.
He also expresses hopes for America. He states, “America cannot afford to alienate people around the world, but rather must apply the same standards of fairness at home and abroad — supporting corrupt regimes and following double standards in foreign policy are not in America’s interests in the long run.”
Voyage through Time: Walks of Life to the Nobel Prize by Ahmed Zewail, The American University in Cairo Press 2002, ISBN 977 424 677 2. 344 pages. $22.95 (hardbound)