How best to recognize Caltech's own Ahmed Zewail, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics, and director of the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology, who has served on Caltech's faculty for 40 years? President Thomas F. Rosenbaum had the answer: what he would later call a "quintessentially Caltech conference."
And so, on Friday, February 26, more than 1,000 people gathered to hear exceptional researchers, including 5 Nobel Laureates, from across disciplines consider our future as part of the full-day "Science and Society" conference that honored the career of Zewail, whom Rosenbaum called "a wizard of scientific innovation."
The speakers lectured on a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from space travel to global economic inequality to what happens when five inflated balloons are stuffed into a vat of liquid nitrogen. Their talks were moderated by Nathan Gardels, editor in chief of The WorldPost, and Peter Dervan, the Bren Professor of Chemistry, who noted while introducing Zewail that they have been close friends ever since their early days starting as assistant professors together at Caltech.
"What an extraordinary day," Rosenbaum said at the conclusion of the event, held in Beckman Auditorium. "It's unusual to find a series of talks at this incredibly high level of excellence—intellectually deep and pedagogically engaging."
As many of the speakers pointed out, Zewail's list of accomplishments is staggering. He has authored some 600 articles and 16 books and was sole recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in femtochemistry. In the post-Nobel era, he developed a new field dubbed four-dimensional electron microscopy. He has been active in global affairs, serving as the first U.S. Science Envoy to the Middle East and helping establish the Zewail City of Science and Technology in Cairo, which he hopes to turn into "the Caltech of Egypt."
"Ahmed is a very special kind of scientist," said Fiona Harrison, chair of Caltech's Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, during the conference's introductory remarks. She noted the "incredible breadth of his research" and cited a colleague's observation that "Ahmed is someone who never has average goals."
Jackie Barton, chair of Caltech's Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, praised Caltech for taking a chance on Zewail four decades ago, when he was a young scientist. "He had this vision," she said. "The vision was to watch the dynamics of chemical reactions, to watch reactions happening on a faster and faster time scale, indeed to watch the making and breaking of chemical bonds."
She added: "He has this intuitive sense of the dynamical motions of atoms and molecules, their coherence, or lack thereof, as the case may be. And then he has this extraordinary attention to every detail, so that he's able to meld together theory and experiment and understand that dance, that choreography of atoms and molecules as they carry out a reaction."
To further honor Zewail, Caltech presented him with a rare book of Benjamin Franklin's speeches and scientific research—on lightning rods and the aurora borealis, among other phenomena—that is signed by Rosenbaum and all of Caltech's former presidents. Caltech Provost Ed Stolper noted that it is the only book authored by Franklin that was published during his lifetime.
As Stolper noted in his introductory remarks, the gift is a fitting one for Zewail, who has come to embody the ideal of Caltech, a place "where scientists and engineers are limited only by their imagination." He added Ahmed is one of the few scientists that, like Benjamin Franklin and Linus Pauling, not only excelled in science but has made a broader impact on society through his writings and actions.
Written by Alex Roth