At Caltech, Zewail and his team discovered how to image molecular motions on a timescale of incredible resolution: the femtosecond, or a millionth of a billionth of a second. It was his dream to achieve, as he described it, “the timescale of making and breaking chemical bonds,” Jacqueline K. Barton, Zewail’s longtime Caltech colleague and scientific collaborator, told Chemical & Engineering News.
Zewail, who was born in Egypt, was interested in science early in his life. After winning the Nobel Prize, he recounted, “I had passion about science. My mother said I was going to burn the house (with chemistry experiments),” Al Jazeera reported.
Zewail’s contributions to science are internationally recognized. France awarded him the country’s highest honor, the Legion d’Honneur, and Egypt bestowed upon him its equivalent, the Order of the Grand Collar of the Nile. In the 2009, US President Barack Obama made Zewail the first science ambassador to the Middle East, to foster better relations between the states through scientific collaboration. After the Egyptian revolution in 2011, the chemist founded Zewail City of Science and Technology, a national research center and university in Cairo, which has just begun to accept students, according to Caltech and Chemical & Engineering News.
“Ahmed was the quintessential scholar and global citizen,” Caltech President Thomas Rosenbaum said in the 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.”
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi said the country had lost a son and role model, Al Jazeera reported.
Zaweil is survived by his wife, Dema Faham, and four children.