Born in Egypt, Zewail was fascinated by physics, engineering, and what he called the “mathematics of chemistry,” and set up experiments at home to learn more. “In my bedroom I constructed a small apparatus, out of my mother’s oil burner [for making Arabic coffee] and a few glass tubes, in order to see how wood is transformed into a burning gas and a liquid substance,” he wrote later. After receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Alexandria University, his professors urged him to look to the U.S. for further education; the University of Pennsylvania offered him a scholarship. “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,” he said. “The culture was foreign, the language was difficult, but my hopes were high.” After post-doc work at the University of California at Berkeley, Zewail was hired by Caltech to teach, and he spent the rest of his career there, where he was the Linus Pauling Chair Professor of Chemistry, Professor of Physics, and the director of the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology. There, he sought to more fully understand chemical reactions. It was thought impossible to really study what really happens with many reactions, because they happen so fast. Zewail pioneered the use of ultra-fast flashing lasers which enabled him to see atomic-level interactions — a significant breakthrough which allowed multiple breakthroughs in chemistry.
With that, Zewail was dubbed the Father of Femtochemistry — the study of chemical reactions across femtoseconds. His technique even enables the observation of transition states — the actual moment of a chemical reaction. It was such a breakthrough that Zewail was the first Arab to win a Nobel Prize in any scientific field (in 1999, for Chemistry). In later years, Zewail was developing four-dimensional ultrafast electron microscopy, which colleagues say will enable them to study the atomic-scale behavior of chemical reactions through space and time. Zewail was well regarded overseas, too, and was awarded Egypt’s Order of the Grand Collar of the Nile, Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’s Davy Medal, France’s Order of Légion d’Honneur in France, and the American Chemical Society’s highest honor, the Priestley Medal, among others. In 2013, Dr. Zewail warned that education and science needed to be protected from politics, especially in the Middle East. “A part of the world that pioneered science and mathematics during Europe’s dark ages is now lost in a dark age of illiteracy and knowledge deficiency,” he said. “Any group hoping to authentically represent the hopes of the Egyptian people must make educational attainment and economic growth its priority.” Dr. Zewail died on August 2, at 70.