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Ahmed Zewail: A Nobel Prize winner links Egypt and the U.S. through science

Ahmed Zewail is one of seven recipients of the 2011 Top American Leaders awards.
Ahmed Hassan Zewail | 30.11.2011
Ahmed Zewail is one of seven recipients of the 2011 Top American Leaders awards, bestowed by The Washington Post’s On Leadership section and the Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership. This year’s recipients were chosen by a selection committee convened by the Center for Public Leadership, and will be honored at Ford’s Theatre on December 5, 2011.

This profile was written by Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, vice preisdent of the California Institute of Technology, and a member of the 2011 Top American Leaders selection committee. Visit On Leadership to see all of the winners’ profiles.

Dr. Ahmed Zewail is more than just a Nobel Prize winner.

The chemistry and physics professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is as renowned for his efforts in promoting knowledge-based development and global peace as he is for his academic leadership. For decades, he has worked to further education and economic development in his native country, Egypt, and throughout the Arab world. And this year, he is engaged in the transition to democracy ushered in by the recent revolutions that have become known as the Arab Spring.

His ties to both Egypt and the United States, science and democracy, fused most powerfully when, in late 2009, President Barack Obama named Zewail the first United States science envoy to the Middle East.

Since then, Zewail’s public lectures have been televised to millions in the Middle East, and he is presently leading the effort to develop a “Zewail Science and Technology City” in Cairo that would include a university, a number of institutes for scientific research and a park for start-up companies and technology transfer.

Yet though his early education was in Egypt, much of his career has taken shape in the United States. Zewail completed a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, before joining the faculty at Caltech, where he now also serves as the director of the Moore Foundation’s Center for Physical Biology.

In 1999, Dr. Zewail was awarded the Nobel Prize for his pioneering developments in femtoscience, which made it possible to observe atomic motions during molecular transformations in a femtosecond—that is, a millionth of a billionth of a second. More recently, he and his group have developed the field of 4-D electron microscopy, allowing for the direct visualization of matter’s behavior, from atoms to biological cells, in the four dimensions of space and time.

For his contributions to science and public life he has garnered, besides the Nobel Prize, other honors from around the globe. Forty honorary degrees. Orders of state and merit. Commemorative postage stamps. He has also won more than 100 international awards, from the Albert Einstein World Award and Benjamin Franklin Medal to the Leonardo da Vinci Award and the King Faisal Prize. And somewhere in the midst of all this, Zewail found the chance to author a biography, Voyage through Time, which weaves together just as organically the story of his life into the story of science and world affairs.