07/26/1995 07:00:00

Caltech's Zewail Receives Order of Merit and da Vinci Awards

PASADENA—Ahmed Zewail, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics at Caltech, has recently received a prestigious international honor from Egypt and another from France.

Zewail received the Order of Merit, First Class, from Egyptian president M. Hosni Mubarak in a ceremony in Cairo on May 25. The Order of Merit from the president, which is comparable to knighthood in Britain, is bestowed by the state of Egypt to those who have reached the highest levels in the arts and sciences. The Order of Merit admits the recipient to special benefits in Egyptian society.

Among past recipients of the Order of Merit are Nobel Prize–winning author Naguib Mahfouz. Zewail, who was born and educated in Egypt but is now an American citizen, is the first person ever awarded the Order of Merit who is not a resident of Egypt.

In an awards presentation that was broadcast nationwide on Egyptian television and attended by some 2,000 scholars, diplomats, and dignitaries, President Mubarak awarded several prizes. He gave National Medals to Egyptian citizens and bestowed upon Zewail a gold medallion symbolizing the Order of Merit. The medallion, crafted by a jeweler, consists of a five-pointed gold star on a purple circle, with an eagle, the national symbol of Egypt, in the center.

Zewail also received the Leonardo da Vinci Award of Excellence for 1995 on July 4 at a ceremony in Paris, France. Also receiving the award this year were physicist Claude Cohen-Tannoudji of the Collège de France in Paris, France; and Charles Shank, a physicist and director of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. The da Vinci Award is given to people in the arts and sciences for achievements of great international significance. The theme for the 1995 award is the "Play of Light and Matter."

The da Vinci Award, whose recipients are selected by an international jury with members from the United States, Europe, and Japan, is awarded by the Moët Hennessy–Louis Vuitton Foundation of France. The foundation was established by the companies of the same names to help bring science, art, and industry closer together.

Zewail is well known internationally for his work in developing the field of laser femtochemistry—chemistry on the timescale of femtoseconds. A femtosecond is one millionth of one billionth of a second, or about the time it takes light to travel 1/100th of the width of a human hair. Using pulsed lasers, Zewail and his group have devised techniques for catching atoms in the act of coming together and reacting to form molecules, and for catching molecules in the act of falling apart to form new molecules. These "molecular births" occur in times of less than a millionth of a millionth of a second, and before Zewail's work, scientists had been unable to study such ultrafast events directly in real time. The field has expanded over the last decade into many areas of chemistry, physics, and biology.

Zewail received both his bachelor's degree—with honors—and his master's degree from Alexandria University in Egypt. He earned his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974, and after two years as an IBM Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, joined the Caltech faculty in 1976. Zewail is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the European Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Humanities; and a Fellow of the American Physical Society. He has received numerous national and international prizes, including in 1989 the King Faisal International Prize in Science, and in 1992 the Carl Zeiss International Award. He was named winner of the prestigious 1993 Wolf Prize in Chemistry, and last year received the Bonner Chemiepreis from the Chemical Institutes in Bonn, Germany. From the American Physical Society, he has received the H. P. Broide Prize and the E. K. Plyler Prize.

Written by John Avery