1997 Ahmed H. Zewail*, Caltech

Recipient of the 1997 Richard C. Tolman Award
Ahmed H. Zewail, California Institute of Technology

Ahmed Zewail is the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Physics at the California Institute of Technology, and Director of the NSF Laboratory for Molecular Sciences (LMS). He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from Alexandria Univeristy, and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Zewail was appointed to the faculty at Caltech in 1976, after two years as an IBM Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley. He became a full professor in 1982, and was honored by benign named the first Linus Pauling Chair at Caltech in 1990.

Zewail is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Third World Academy of Science, European Academy of Arts, Sciences and Humanities, and fellow of the American Physical Society.

Ahmed Zewail has been widely recognized for his contributions. His honors include: the Robert A. Welch Award, Wolf Prize, King Faisal Prize, Benjamin Franklin Medal, Leonardo Da Vinci Award of Excellence, Rontgen Prize, Paul Karrer Gold Medal, Bonner Chemiepreis, Medal of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Carl Zeiss Award, Hoechst Award, and the Alexander von Humboldt Award. Dr. Zewail has also received the Chemical Sciences Award from the National Academy of Sciences, and the J. G. Kirkwood Award from Yale University. He was Alfred P Sloan Fellow, Camille and Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar, and John Simon Guggenheim Fellow. From the American Physical Society, he was awarded the Herbert P. Broida Prize and the Earle K. Plyler Prize; and from the American Chemical Society, the Nichols Medal, Linus Pauling Medal, E. Bright Wilson Award, Peter Debye Award, Nobel Laureate Signature Award, Harrison-Howe Award, and the Buck-Whitney Medal. In 1995, he received the Order of Merit, first class from the President of Egypt, H. Mubarak.

Dr. Zewail has been instrumental in exploring femtochemistry, which involves the study of chemical reactions in real time. The femtosecond time scale conveys incredibly small intervals of time, one-quadrillionth of a second.

Zewail’s seminal research approach uses pulses of light to initiate a chemical reaction, then other pulses to take “snapshots” of the steps in the process. He has said that “Understanding molecular behavior is the prerequisite to understanding just about anything else in our chemical and biological universe. How atoms and molecules behave as chemical reactions unfold is the core of femtochemistry”.

Tolman Award Dinner
Thursday, April 23, 1998
The Athenaeum
California Institute of Technology


*The 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Ahmed Zewail “for his studies of the transition states of chemical reactions using femtosecond spectroscopy”.

Ahmed H. Zewail

Born: 26 February 1946, Damanhur, Egypt

Died: 2 August 2016

Affiliation at the time of the award: California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena, CA, USA

Prize motivation: “for his studies of the transition states of chemical reactions using femtosecond spectroscopy”

Field: chemical kinetics, physical chemistry

Prize share: 1/1

Ahmed Zewail was born in Damanhur, Egypt, and grew up in Alexandria. His father worked as a bicycle and motorbike fitter before becoming a government official. After studying at the university in Alexandria, Zewail moved to the US to undertake his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. After some time spent working at the University of California, Berkeley, Zewail transferred to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in 1976, where he continues to work. Ahmed Zewail is married with four children.

Chemical reactions in which molecules held together by atoms meet and reorganize into new compounds are one of nature’s most fundamental processes. This transition from one constellation to another happens very quickly. The process is possible because the atoms inside a molecule vibrate. The time between these vibrations is very short – 10-100 femtoseconds. In the late 1980s Ahmed Zewail developed methods for studying chemical reactions in detail. By using laser technology to produce flashes of light just a few femtoseconds long, reactions can be mapped.

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