Ahmed Zewail and Femtochemistry

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Ahmed Zewail
Courtesy of California
Institute of Technology (Caltech)

"Ahmed Zewail, … a scientist at the California Institute of Technology, … [received the 1999] Nobel Prize for chemistry … for his pioneering research in femtochemistry—a field that has emerged from the use of ultrafast lasers to observe chemical reactions as they actually happen.

The … chemist's laser-spectroscopy technique has led to a greater understanding of the nature of chemical bonds as well as the details of such complex processes as photosynthesis, animal vision and polymer formation. It has also opened up a whole realm of practical possibilities, from pain-free dentistry to quicker computer chips.

In the 1980s, the Egyptian-born Zewail and his colleagues developed a way of taking split-second snapshots of the once-invisible intermediate stages in a chemical reaction by firing two pulses of laser light in quick succession. The first pulse of light excites the molecules and the second, weaker pulse shows how the molecules have changed since the first one fired. The reactions are measured in time units called femtoseconds. (A femtosecond is one quadrillionth, or .000000000000001, of a second. Put another way, a femtosecond is to a second what a second is to 32 million years.) …

Zewail grew up in Egypt and earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Alexandria University. … Two years after earning his doctorate at Penn [University of Pennsylvania], he joined the faculty at Caltech, where he is now the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Physics."1

"In 2009, Zewail was appointed to President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. That same year, he was named the first U.S. Science Envoy to the Middle East as part of a program created by the State Department to foster science and technology collaborations between the United States and nations throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. …

Zewail has long been a statesman and active participant in global affairs, particularly as they relate to science, education, and world peace." 2


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