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05/06/1997 07:00:00

Welch Award Honors Pioneer of New Chemistry Field

PASADENA—Dr. Ahmed H. Zewail, who has pioneered the field of femtochemistry, has been named the 1997 recipient of the Robert A. Welch Award in Chemistry. The Welch Foundation, based in Houston, annually presents the award, which consists of a $300,000 monetary prize, a certificate, and a gold medallion, to recognize outstanding contributions to chemistry for the betterment of humankind.

Zewail, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Physics and professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, is internationally recognized for his efforts in the development of ultrafast lasers and electrons to probe chemical reactions as they actually occur in real time. Because reactions can take place in a millionth of a billionth of a second, Zewail's research has, with state-of-the-art lasers, made it possible to observe and study for the first time atoms and molecules in motion, probing nature at its fundamental levels.

Specifically, Zewail seeks to understand better the way that chemical bonds form and break. With the development of laser techniques, he and his team have been able to obtain greater insights about the precise nature of chemical bonds. The field, femtochemistry, has had wide-ranging impact on chemistry and photobiology all over the world.

Thomas Everhart, president of Caltech, said that Zewail's research is of great importance. "While chemical reactions have been studied for a long time, the dynamics of these reactions were not observed in real time because they take place in a very short time—of the order of femtoseconds (10-15 seconds)," he said.

"Professor Zewail's method of studying chemical reactions using very short pulses of light has removed a significant barrier to our understanding of the details of how chemical reactions proceed," Everhart continued. "I am delighted he is being honored with the Welch Award for this pioneering work."

According to Richard J. V. Johnson, Welch Foundation chairman, Zewail's work "has given birth to a new era in chemistry. His novel applications of technology have allowed scientists, for the first time, to really see what is happening at the molecular level. This is an enormous accomplishment with wide-ranging implications for expanding chemical knowledge."

"Not only has Dr. Zewail greatly expanded our understanding of chemical reactions, but the fundamental nature of his work can be seen in biologists' and physicists' adoption of femtochemistry techniques," said Dr. Norman Hackerman, chairman of the Foundation's Scientific Advisory Board. "This ability to actually observe material rearrangement has already stimulated important new theories and understanding by scientists in many fields."

Born and raised in Egypt, Zewail received both his bachelor's and his master's degrees from Alexandria University. He earned his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974 and joined the Caltech faculty in 1976 after two years as an IBM Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Zewail, now a U.S. citizen, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Third World Academy of Science, and the European Academy of Arts, Sciences and Humanities, and is a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

His international awards include the King Faisal Prize, the Wolf Prize, the Carl Zeiss Award, the Leonardo da Vinci Award of Excellence, the Bonner Chemiepreis Award, and the Medal of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among his national prizes are many from the American Chemical Society, including the Harrison-Howe Award, the Peter Debye Award, the E. Bright Wilson Award, and the Buck-Whitney Award. The American Physical Society has honored Dr. Zewail with the Earle K. Plyler Prize and the Herbert P. Broida Prize. He has also received the Chemical Sciences Award from the National Academy of Sciences. In 1995, the president of Egypt, H. Mubarak, honored Dr. Zewail with the Order of Merit, First Class.

The international Robert A. Welch Award in Chemistry has been given by the Welch Foundation since 1972 to honor lifetime achievements in chemistry. The Welch Foundation is one of the country's oldest and largest continuing sources of private funding for basic chemistry research. Since it was founded in 1954 with a bequest by oilman Robert Alonzo Welch, the foundation has awarded more than $330 million in research grants to advance the cause of greater understanding of chemicals and their reactions.

Zewail will be honored with the announcement of the award at a luncheon today (May 6) at the Athenaeum. 

Written by Robert Tindol