Egyptian Nobel-winning chemist Zewail dies aged 70

Ahmed Zewail pioneered study of femtochemistry and served as an adviser to US president Barack Obama.

Ahmed Zewail addresses members of the constitution committee at the Shura council in Cairo on September 11, 2012. The US-Egyptian scientist, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1999, died on August 2, 2016 at the age of 70. Khaled Desouki / AFP
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Cairo // Egyptian-American chemist Ahmed Zewail, a Nobel Prize winner who served as a scientific adviser to president Barack Obama, has died at the age of 70.

His death on Tuesday was announced by the Californian Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he had worked since 1976.

Zewail, a naturalised US citizen, won the 1999 Nobel for chemistry for his study of chemical reactions in extremely short timescales.

He was the third Egyptian to win a Nobel and the country’s first scientist to do so.

His work showed that it is possible with rapid laser technique to study in slow motion how atoms in a molecule move during a chemical reaction.

Zewail’s work led to the birth of femtochemistry, an area of research that “enables us to understand why certain chemical reactions take place but not others”, according to the Nobel website.

His discoveries offered scientists greater insight into chemical and pharmacological processes with implications across a range of disciplines including human health, electronics and high-precision machinery.

“Egypt has today lost one of its faithful sons and a brilliant scholar”, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi said.

Egyptian media reported that Zewail, who was married with four children, would be buried in Egypt.

Born in the northern Egyptian town of Damanhur in 1946, Zewail studied chemistry at Alexandria University before moving to the US in 1969 where he gained his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974.

He taught physics and chemistry at Caltech, where he went on to oversee the university’s laboratory for molecular sciences.

Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum described Zewail as a “quintessential scholar and global citizen”.

His “fervour for discovery never abated and he serves as an inspiration to colleagues and generations of students,” Mr Rosenbaum said.

In 2009 Zewail was appointed to Obama’s council of advisers on science and technology, and later that year he was named the first US science envoy to the Middle East.

He was a member of several prestigious scientific institutions including the National Academy of Sciences and the US American Academy of Art and Sciences. He was a fellow of London’s Royal Society.

* Agence France-Presse