10/12/1999 07:00:00

Zewail wins Nobel Prize

PASADENA—Dr. Ahmed H. Zewail has won the 1999 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his groundbreaking work in viewing and studying chemical reactions at the atomic level as they occur. The announcement was made today by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Zewail, a native of Egypt, is Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Physics and professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology. He is internationally recognized for his efforts in a field he pioneered known as femtochemistry. This technique uses ultrafast lasers to probe chemical reactions as they actually occur in real time.

The Royal Swedish Academy cited Zewail "for showing that it is possible with rapid laser technique to see how atoms in a molecule move during a chemical reaction." 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 this motion for the first time, thus allowing scientists to probe nature at its fundamental level.

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 has had wide-ranging impact on chemistry and photobiology all over the world.

"Professor Zewail's contributions have brought about a revolution in chemistry and adjacent sciences, since this type of investigation allows us to understand and predict important reactions," the Royal Swedish Academy announced in the citation.

David Baltimore, president of Caltech and a fellow Nobel Laureate, said the news of Zewail's Nobel Prize spread rapidly over campus after the announcement.

"Being the Number One college in the country this year, according to U.S. News and World Report, and having the year's Number One chemist makes it a really great time for Caltech," Baltimore said.

Born and raised in Egypt and now a U.S. citizen, 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. Zewail 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; the Pontifical Academy of Sciences; and is a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

His international awards include the Welch Prize, 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.

Zewail's research has been supported in part by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Science Foundation, and the Office of Naval Research.

Written by Robert Tindol