Caltech professor wins Nobel prize in chemistry

PASADENA, Calif. - Nobody at the California Institute of Technology seemed surprised Tuesday to learn that professor Ahmed Zewail won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for his work in observing and studying chemical reactions.

No one except Zewail, who answered the phone at 5:40 a.m. in his San Marino home and found himself talking to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

''I was frozen in time when I got the call,'' the scientist said. ''I couldn't believe it. Then I kissed my wife and my kids. That's what I did.''

Over a tenure of more than 20 years at Caltech, Zewail and his students pioneered the field of femtochemistry, the use of lasers to monitor chemical reactions at a scale of a femtosecond, or a millionth of a billionth of a second.

Using Zewail's techniques, scientists can now observe the bonding and busting of molecules in real time. The research could lead to new ways of manipulating chemical or biological reactions as well as faster electronics and ultra-precise machinery.

''If you can understand the landscape of a chemical change or a biological change, you might be able to alter the landscape,'' he said.

David Baltimore, president of Caltech and a fellow Nobel laureate, said few people on the campus were surprised by the announcement.

''To answer a question that I'm sure will come up: Yes, we expected this would happen,'' he said. ''Ahmed is doing some of the most exciting and innovative work in 20th century chemistry.''

Born and raised in Egypt, Zewail said he has always been interested in science and learning.

''I never ever believed that one day I would get a call from Sweden as a boy,'' he said. ''I had passion about science. My mother said I was going to burn the house (with early chemistry experiments).''

Zewail, 53, joined Caltech in 1976 and became a tenured professor two years later. In 1990, he was appointed the first Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Physics, a position named for the famed Caltech scientist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1954 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963.

Last year, Egypt issued postage stamps with Zewail's picture.

On Tuesday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak congratulated the nation's second Nobel winner. Naguib Mahfouz won the prize in literature in 1988.

''I am happy to congratulate one of Egypt's great sons for winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry, making Egypt for the second time a forerunner in the international field,'' the president said.

Inside one of Zewail's seven labs in the sub-basement of a Caltech building, flashes of orange and green light flicker against darkened walls as his graduate students demonstrated the technology to reporters.

Mirianas Chachisvilis, a postdoctoral student who has worked with Zewail for three years, said he expects to see less of his mentor now that he has been awarded science's most prestigious prize.

''It means we will have to be more independent,'' he said, adding that Zewail will have many more commitments. ''We've been expecting this. Everybody has been talking about it. I think it was overdue. It was just a question of time.''

The prizes, worth $960,000, are presented on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite who established the prizes.


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