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Interview with Ahmed Zewail

Zewail, Ahmed (2017) Interview with Ahmed Zewail. [Oral History]

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Interview in seven sessions (June-November 2015) with Ahmed Zewail, Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics, and 1999 Nobel laureate in chemistry. Zewail talks at length about growing up on the banks of the Nile in Desouk, Egypt, describing family and cultural influences, and the interplay of education, politics, and faith during his youth and adolescence. He recalls his early “passion” for knowledge and fascination with science, and the moderate, “intellectually rich” Islam of his day. He talks about his studies at the University of Alexandria (BSc ’67, MSc ’69), the stimulating intellectual and socially tolerant environment there, his designation as a “special” (outstanding) student majoring in chemistry, and his determination to pursue a doctorate in the United States. He recalls his adjustment to life in America, both at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his PhD in 1974 with R. Hochstrasser, and as a postdoc at UC Berkeley, where molecular dynamics research with C. Harris set the stage for his future forays into laser-based femtoscience. He recalls turning down numerous academic jobs, including one proffered by S. Hussein in Iraq, to accept a faculty position at Caltech in 1976. He traces the decade of work that led in 1987 to the first direct observations of the making and breaking of chemical bonds, including collaborative work with R. Bernstein and the crucial role of Caltech institutional support. He recalls traveling to Saudi Arabia and Israel to receive the King Faisal and Wolf Prizes respectively and the circumstances surrounding the announcement of the Nobel Prize in 1999 and its aftermath. Zewail talks about the Nobel’s impact on his personal and professional life, including his involvement in public policy, global educational initiatives, and commitment to advancing science education in Egypt, and discusses his post-Nobel 4D electron microscopy research and the establishment of Caltech’s Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology. He recalls discussions with then-Egyptian president H. Mubarak that ultimately led to the founding of Zewail City and touches briefly on his involvement in the 2011 Egyptian Spring. He offers his thoughts on personalities who influenced his life and career, including the iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum and numerous members of the Caltech community. The oral history concludes with a retrospective on his 40 years at Caltech. Occasional references in this oral history to a memoir or autobiography refer to Voyage through Time: Walks of Life to the Nobel Prize, by Ahmed Zewail, American University in Cairo Press, 2002.

Item Type:Oral History
Keywords:Chemistry, femtochemistry, physics
Record Number:CaltechOH:OH_Zewail_A
Persistent URL:
Official Citation:Zewail, Ahmed. Interview by Heidi Aspaturian. Pasadena, California, June – November 2015. Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology Archives. Retrieved [supply date of retrieval] from the World Wide Web:
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
Subjects:Subjects > Chemistry
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Subjects > Physics
ID Code:247
Deposited By: Oral Histories Administrator
Deposited On:14 Jun 2017 19:40
Last Modified:04 Oct 2019 15:24

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