A handmade poster bearing a brief, " hastily scrawled message leans against a wall in Abmed Zewail’s office. Is a remider of the events that have charmed this chemist’s life for the last two and a half years.

“Thank you, King Faisal Three Cheers for AZ.!!! The Femtosecond king,” it says. Signed by about a dozen of Zewail’s students at the California Institute of Technology, the poster celebrates Zewail’s selection in January as the 1989 recipient of Saudi Arabia’s $100,000 King Faisal International Prize in Science for “pioneering and excellent work on ultrafast laser chemistry.”

If Zewail is the femtosecond king, then he shares his realm with 15 or so fematosecond knights and dames—graduate students and postdocs who are part of his research team. Together, this royal family presides over a ‘world where time is measured in one-quadrillionth seconds, or fematoseconds, and where previously hidden stages of chemical reactions are...

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