Ahmed Zewail is the father of femtochemistry, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999. He now wants to sire a rebirth in Muslim participation in the sciences.
Muslims gave us algebra. But in recent centuries, they have been shut out. A religion that claims to have 1.2 billion members can count on two fingers how many Nobels it has in the sciences,while Jewish people dominate the field, relative to their number.
Born on February 26, 1946 in Damanhour, Egypt, Ahmed Hassan Zewail earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry at Alexandria University before working on his doctorate at Penn. He remained in the United States, eventually becoming a citizen. He pioneered femtochemistry, the study of chemical reactions across femtoseconds.
A femtosecond is a millionth of a nanosecond, which itself is a billionth of a second.
This trailblazer's journey began in Egypt.
"The family's dream was to see me receive a high degree abroad and to return to become a university professor -- on the door to my study room, a sign was placed reading, Dr. Ahmed, even though I was still far from becoming a doctor. My father did live to see that day, but a dear uncle did not. Uncle Rizk was special in my boyhood years and I learned much from him -- an appreciation for critical analyses, an enjoyment of music, and of intermingling with the masses and intellectuals alike; he was respected for his wisdom, financially well-to-do, and self-educated. Culturally, my interests were focused -- reading, music, some sports and playing backgammon. The great singer Um Kulthum (actually named Kawkab Elsharq -- a superstar of the East) had a major influence on my appreciation of music. On the first Thursday of each month we listened to Um Kulthum's concert -- waslats (three songs) -- for more than three hours. During all of my study years in Egypt, the music of this unique figure gave me a special happiness, and her voice was often in the background while I was studying mathematics, chemistry, etc. After three decades I still have the same feeling and passion for her music. In America, the only music I have been able to appreciate on this level is classical, and some jazz. Reading was and still is my real joy," Doctor Ahmed Zewail wrote in his Nobel biography in 1999.
He has tried to use his Nobel to inspire other Muslims to do as he has done.
"From a genetic point of view, Muslim Arabs are no different from anyone else. Historically, of course, Arabs and Muslims in Spain and Arabia were at the peak of their civilization when so-called Christian Europe was in the Dark Ages. No doubt without the Arab scholarly works and translations from Greek philosophy to their original work in astronomy, European development might not have taken place for another 500 years," Dr. Zewail said in an interview in 2004.
"What is more important is the modern history of what happened to the Arab world. During the time of Muhammad Ali only 200 years ago, Egypt was in such a strong position that the Japanese and Koreans at the time studied how its economy worked.
"What happened in the last century? First of all, there was colonization, which by deﬁnition installed a class and caste system of the governing elite from or allied with the outside, with all the clubs and prestige, for example, of the British Empire, and then a huge population of illiterate peasants."
He also said, "Worse, even a big fraction of young college graduates today doesn't have jobs. What do they do then? All that energy goes into fanaticism and violence. And, unlike the rest of world facing a silver wave, the Arab world is facing a youth wave: Most of the population is under 30. So, this business of conflict of civilizations is a slogan. It sells well, but more important are the political and economic forces that lead to religious fanaticism."
Of course, it cuts both ways. Blaming all the woes of the Muslim world on colonialism is as vapid as blaming religious fanaticism. Instead of the pointing of fingers, Zewail has used his hands to get the work done. President Obama appointed him, Algerian-born Harvard professor Elias Zerhouni and Bruce Alberts as science envoys to majority-Muslim countries across North Africa, Asia and southeast Asia.
Just as America grew by offering opportunities to a growing number of citizens and immigrants, so will the world of science when it once again taps into this valuable human resource of Muslims.