Bidding farewell to Zewail, an exceptional scientist

Mohamed Abul Ghar
Wednesday 17 Aug 2016

Ahmed Zewail, one of Egypt’s most prominent ever scientists and the Nobel Laureate that we have just lost, made a clear imprint on the research of chemistry and physics

Ahmed Zewail’s studies have opened the door for further scientific progress that will always be associated with his name and will continue to benefit the world at large.

Ahmed Zewail was born in 1946 into a typical middle class family in the city of Damanhour, Beheira Governorate, before moving to the city of Dessouk, in the governorate of Kafr El-Sheikh, where he attended school.

At the Faculty of Chemistry at Alexandria University, Zewail received his Bsc and his MA. He then received a scholarship to do his PhD at Pennsylvania University.

Later Zewail moved to the prominent University of Berkeley and then landed a teaching job with Caltech -- one of the world’s top scientific research centres -- not just in the United States but across the world, and where many Nobel Laureates have worked.

It was in Caltech that Zewail started his research on the femtosecond and where he later developed a fascinating new telescope that provides an unprecedented capacity to measure volume, weight and time.

He then took up chemistry and biology research in the hope of helping to develop techniques that could help cure some illnesses like cancer.

Having established a prominent scientific status at Calthech, Zewail opted to strengthen his ties with his mother country and to reach out with support to potential young Egyptian scientists – and he did indeed help some to get well-deserved scholarships to advance their studies in the US. 

In 1999, when Zewail was awarded the Nobel Prize, he was well celebrated in Egypt and he was accorded the state’s highest honorary medal. He then made repeated visits to Egypt in the hope of establishing a high-level centre for scientific research that could help his country make progress on this much overlooked path.

Zewail had wanted to affiliate this centre to the presidency away from the bureaucracy of the government – having known full well that this would be the most trusted way to secure the efficient operation of the aspired centre.

However, Zewail lost the battle before the ailments of bureaucracy and eventually took his idea to some other Arab countries.

Following the January 2011 Revolution, Zewail had renewed hopes for his dream and came back in the pursuit of launching the centre for scientific research. He eventually managed to gain the support of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi who had assigned the armed forces to pursue the completion of the construction of the centre in the hope of it being inaugurated in 2017.

On the board of the aspired center, Zewail had solicited the membership of prominent researchers, economists, scientists and administration experts on a completely voluntary basis. 

The Zewail University should provide the base for a new beginning for scientific research in Egypt. It must be the hub for the incredible wealth of Egyptian brains who mostly otherwise opt for the West or even for the Gulf states. 

The Zewail University should receive all possible support because investing in scientific research is without question worthwhile.

There are key requirements to secure the success of this university.

First: Finance -- At the onset of the project the state provided the land for the university and there were lots of donations from individuals, scientists and the business community. However, for many reasons, these donations stopped, almost completely.

Recently, President El-Sisi promised that the state would continue this project through the help of the armed forces’ construction and engineering authority. 

Second: Independence -- This project has to continue to be free from the negative influences of bureaucracy, which means it has to continue to have direct affiliation to the presidency and that it has to be managed upon completely transparent criteria.

Third: Volunteering -- Like the original scheme, those on the board of the Zewail University have to be there on a strictly voluntary basis because otherwise it would be a venue for aspired job opportunities and this would simply defy the cause.

Fourth: Efficiency -- Scientists associated with this university have to be selected strictly upon scientific merit and those who fall short of pursuing research adequately should be asked to leave promptly.

Fifth: Supervision -- the research has to be subject to the assessment of a prominent international scientific body to make sure that it is up to date.

Out of gratitude for what it had offered him, Zewail had asked to be buried in Egypt, his original country. 

Zewail was accorded a military funeral attended by the president and top state officials along with his family.

We pray for the soul of Zewail to rest in peace and we pray for his dream to materialise and for the university to make the aspired progress – away from all potential squabbling.

The writer is the former head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.


Short link: