Egyptian Nobel laureate on Obama’s Council of Advisors

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“Arriving in the States, I had the feeling of being thrown into an ocean. The ocean was full of knowledge, culture, and opportunities, and the choice was clear: I could either learn to swim or sink,” says scientist Ahmed Zewail in his book Voyage Through Time: Walks of Life to the Nobel Prize (World Scientific Publishing Company, 2003).

Ahmed Zewail is a swimmer. On April 27, 2009, the Nobel laureate was named to the president’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology to advise President Obama on national strategies to nurture and sustain a culture of scientific innovation.

The council is an advisory group of the United States’ leading scientists and engineers, who advise the president and vice president and formulate policy in the many areas where an understanding of science, technology, and innovation is key to strengthening the U.S. economy. They also devise policy that works for the American people.

Zewail is a professor of chemistry and physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and director of the school’s recently established Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1999 for his pioneering work that allowed the observation of exceedingly rapid molecular transformations. He is an Egyptian American, widely respected not only for his science but also for his efforts in the Middle East as a voice of reason.

In the late 1980s, Zewail developed a method for viewing the motion of atoms and molecules based on new laser technology that produced light flashes just tens of femtoseconds in duration. Many had thought it impossible to study the events that constitute a chemical reaction, but Zewail’s discovery enabled scientists to gain more insight into and control over a reaction’s outcome. For his studies using femtosecond spectroscopy, he received the Nobel Prize.

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, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Third World Academy of Science, the European Academy of Arts, Sciences and Humanities, and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He is also a fellow of the American Physical Society.

His international awards include the Benjamin Franklin Award, the Albert Einstein Award, the Welch Prize, the King Faisal Prize, the Wolf Prize, the Carl Zeiss Award, the Leonardo da Vinci Award of Excellence, the Bonner Chemiepreis and the Medal of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Science, and he was awarded the Order of the Grand Collar of the Nile, Egypt’s highest state honor.

In his book Voyage Through Time, Zewail considers himself as a cultural product of both East and West, and he also integrates the two worlds; he equally belongs to Egypt and America and despite differences, he emphasizes the confluence of the two cultures.

Zewail has been outspoken in expressing his vision for a better world: “We Arabs can accomplish the transition to the world of the 21st century, but the people and leaders must embark on a new course. Incremental changes — so-called gradual reforms — are inappropriate for a system that has been ineffective for decades. We should have confidence in ourselves and in global participation, and not blame others for current calamities or use religion for political gains … with jihad for modernity and enlightenment; we will realize our rightful place in the future.”

According to Zewail, as a solution to the Arab scientific challenges, there should be public education reform in parallel with opening the door for more scientific research through the establishment of specialized centers with independent budgets and “away from bureaucracy.”

Zewail writes: “Throughout history, people develop an interest in cultures and dialogues for the sake of mutual benefit. Even in one organ, the brain, 100 billion neurons work together to make a living human, and in our homes, cities, and countries we do the same. In an interdependent world, it is in the best interests of both the West and Muslim world to communicate through dialogues and to achieve global stability and mutual benefits from technology, commerce, energy, and cultures. We must not permit the creation of barriers through rhetorical concepts such as ‘clash of civilizations’ or ‘conflict of religions,’ which are of no value to the future of our world.”

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