“ Voyage Through Time: Walks of Life to the Nobel Prize”, By Ahmed Zewail, Scientia Press, Rs. 395/-, 2003.
On October 12, 1999, at around 5.30 a.m., Ahmed Zewail received a phone call from Stockholm. It was a phone call that scientists around the world dream of receiving in their lives; a call from the Swedish Academy of Sciences to announce the Nobel Prize. Ahmed Zewail, Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry at Caltech, USA had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on femtochemistry. In the 100 years of the Nobel Prize, Zewail was the first Arab to get the Prize in the sciences.
For centuries, the Arab world was the centre for science and mathematics. Several key discoveries in chemistry, metallurgy, astronomy and mathematics were made by the Arabs. Apart from their own contributions, the Arab scholars played a major role in transmitting Indian texts to the West. Middle East was truly the intellectual and scientific centre of the world till the middle of the last millennium. Then came the Copernican revolution and the growth of science in the West. The Middle East, like China and India was intellectually eclipsed by the work of Newton, Galileo and others.
In the year 1000 A.D, while most of Europe was in the Dark Ages, an Arab scientist Abu Ali al-Hassan ibn al-Haytham, known to the West as Alhazen was writing a seven-volume treatise on optics. This amazing man, who was born near Basra was invited by the ruler of Egypt to Cairo. Known for his wisdom and knowledge, he was asked by the king to regulate the flow of the river Nile. Alhazen failed to do so and was so scared of the king that he pretended to be insane till the king died! Alhazen’s treatise on optics was truly revolutionary and some of his ideas astonishingly close to our current understanding of light. And now, a millennium later, a fellow Egyptian had been recognized for making path breaking discoveries in the realm of atoms.
“Voyage through Time” is an account of Zewail’s journey from the streets of Desuq, a small town in the Nile delta to the pinnacle of the scientific world. Born in 1946 in a middle class home of a government official, Zewail went to Alexandria for his university studies. He excelled at the university and after his undergraduate degree went to the University of Pennsylvania for his doctoral work in Chemistry.
Zewail’s account of his early life is fascinating though not particularly perceptive. There is the usual detail about the family and life in small town Egypt during the heady Nasser years. In fact, the 10 year old Zewail wrote a letter to Nasser and received a reply in which the President asked him to “continue with patience and passion in harvesting knowledge, armed with good behaviour and good thought…”! But Zewail’s description is too much like a successful emigrant- memory becomes selective in that you nostalgise about the good times with family and have a litany of complaints about the “system”. The stratified system does not promote meritocracy and the bureaucracy is unbearable, so on and so forth. It is, as if, the emigrant subconscious is trying to justify its own flight to greener pastures! The similarity of his memories of life in Egypt to accounts of successful NRIs is striking. Interestingly, just like our NRIs going into raptures over Lata Mangeshkar, Zewail describes his life long love for the music of Umm Kulthum, the great Egyptian singer who has been hailed as one of the three sublime voices of the twentieth century!
After finishing his PhD, Zewail did post doctoral research at various universities and finally started teaching at Caltech. Zewail’s description of his life as a newly arrived student in the United States is enjoyable. The clash of two totally different cultures which he had to face is recounted well, though one would wish once again for a more critical account of the subtle discrimination and disbelief which anyone different faces in that ideologically homogenous society. It is not xenophobia- the culture is outwardly very friendly to different cultures. But there is an inherent misgiving about anything different- food, ideas, dress, codes of conduct, at least in most parts of the U.S. One would have liked Zewail to have noticed this, especially since he does spend some time in the book on his own discomfort as an immigrant student in an alien culture.
At Caltech, Zewail quickly established himself as a top class scientist. He started work in using lasers to capture events happening in the atomic world. In other words, he used laser light to get “pictures” of processes in the submicroscopic world. This was a very challenging piece of scientific work. He developed innovative techniques to record events happening at time intervals of a femtosecond. A femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second! In fact, Zewail’s work led to the establishing of a new branch of chemistry, femtochemistry. Zewail, as the Nobel Committee said, had opened up the world of molecules much like Galileo had with his telescope opened the celestial world. The work on femtochemistry was truly at the frontiers of science.
Zewail gives a good description of his work and its importance. His explanations are lucid and very readable, sprinkled with personal anecdotes and history. At places, he does gloss over some of the difficult concepts but that is sometimes unavoidable when one is trying to communicate frontline science to the layperson.
Awards and recognition followed his discovery and soon he was a well known figure in chemistry. The King Faisal International Prize, the Wolf Prize, the Benjamin Franklin Medal and finally, at the young age of 53, the big one- the Noebl Prize, awarded unshared. It was an honor which made him a star in his native land. The adulation that he received was normally reserved for film stars and soccer palyers! Special stamps with his picture were issued and streets and high schools were named after him. He also received Egypt’s highest honor, the Grand Collar of the Nile.
The book is full of details of the various award ceremonies and the citations and the honors Zewail has received in his career. Of course, Zewail is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant chemists of our times as the honors and the awards attest. His work has been truly pioneering and will have a major impact in the future not only in chemistry but also biology. His name will certainly be placed among the greats of chemistry together with Pauling, Arhenius and others. But, for the reader to go through details of the various prizes and what the citations said about Zewail is a bit tedious. In fact, one of the things one immediately notices is how the Nobel Prize pervades the whole book.
Apart from the story of his life and work, Zewail devotes a chapter to what he thinks should be done to promote science and technology in developing countries like his own native Egypt. Here again, the diagnosis of the problem is eminently sensible ( lack of good institutions, too much red tapism, nepotism etc.) But one has to take the solutions suggested by him with some degree with skepticism. For instance, he wants to set up centers of excellence for science where the researchers are provided with first world environment to do first rate science. To me, this logic is flawed. One has seen this happen in our own country to disastrous effects. Instead of trying to strengthen the existing institutions, our science bureaucracy has gone about creating new white elephants, usually retirement nest eggs for geriatric scientists. With a disproportionate amount of resources going towards these, the universities suffer. Islands of excellence amidst a sea of at best mediocre universities do not make any lasting impact in the world of science. Interestingly, his proposal to set up a Science University in Egypt is very similar to a proposal floated by several NRI scientists to get the government to set up a National Science University in India. Thankfully, this proposal was shot down.
Since the Nobel Prize seems to be the dominant motif of this book, maybe it is pertinent to ponder over the fact that our own subcontinent, home to over one sixth of humanity, having one of the largest scientific base has a pathetic record of internationally acclaimed science. Zewail’s account of his life can provide an insight into what we need to do to promote good science. Good science is done by competent scientists which need a growth of the scientific infrastructure. And needless to say, good science will result in international acclaim and recognition. And who knows, one day, a home grown scientist, working in India would also receive a call from Stockholm!