Aug. 17, 2016
It is difficult to say goodbye to someone who had such a significant impact in your life.
For those of you who don’t know Ahmed Zewail, he was known as the “Father of Femtochemistry” and won the Nobel Prize in 1999. Sadly, he passed away on Aug. 2.
I first visited professor Zewail in 1985. During that visit, he explained on a napkin his dream of being able to observe in real time how a chemical bond is broken. I was hooked by his vision and enthusiasm; the decision to join his group was simple. Accomplishing the goal, considered by many impossible, was not simple. This is when I learned from Zewail to focus on the goal and not on the hardship.
Inspired by his dream of developing an instrument to visualize every atom in the molecule using ultrafast electron diffraction, I decided to remain in the group as a post doc. Once again, the scientific opinion was that the goal ranged from impossible to detection technology being eight-orders-of-magnitude from making it possible. Zewail never doubted success.
As a graduate student for Zewail I got to design and build the first laser system for exploring chemical reactions with femtosecond laser time resolution. As a post doc for Zewail I got to design and build the first laser system for exploring chemical reactions using femtosecond electron pulses and laser pulses. Those experiences were extremely valuable for my academic career at MSU.
At MSU I have built three different ultrafast laser laboratories, with multiple femtosecond lasers in each. I have several inventions related to ultrafast laser technology. Some of those inventions have been commercialized successfully. The most important applications of the femtosecond laser technology we are exploring at present include biomedical imaging for cancer diagnosis and standoff detection of explosives.
But perhaps the most-inspiring lesson I learned from Zewail had little to do with lasers. At a lecture he gave for the Islamic Community of Oxford, England in 2007, I learned that Zewail was deeply committed to world peace. He chastised the media, and some world leaders, for categorizing and dividing people into East and West, or by religion. He emphasized this in a very simple, and uniquely Zewail ability to simplify the complex.
He said, “I am Egyptian and I am American; I am a practicing Muslim and a scientist; and I like pizza!” He continued: “Please note that there are no contradictions in what I said, and there are no conflicts in my mind.” The message in his lecture was that deep down, the majority of people in the world want peace and to know their children will have a better life. Therefore, people in third-world countries should encourage their leaders to focus on educating their people, so that they can join the technical progress that is taking place in the richest countries.
My wife and I visited professor Zewail in March 2015 and were very encouraged to see him in good spirits working in the latest scientific breakthroughs from his lab.
It is then with great shock that we learned about his passing.
The world is better today because of professor Zewail’s contributions; he will be missed by all, not only scientists.
Goodbye mentor and friend.