Ahmed Zewail, Nobel Prize-winning scientist who advised Obama, dead at 70

Ahmed Zewail, a science adviser to U.S. President Obama who won the 1999 Nobel Prize for his work on the study of chemical reactions over immensely short time scales has died at age 70.

Egypt-born chemist known for his study of chemical reactions over short time scales

U.S.-Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning scientist Ahmed Zewail has died at the age of 70. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Ahmed Zewail, a science adviser to U.S. President Obama who won the 1999 Nobel Prize for his work on the study of chemical reactions over immensely short time scales has died at age 70.

Zewail's death on Tuesday was announced by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., where he was Linus Pauling professor of chemistry and director of the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology.

Zewail was born in Egypt and lived in San Marino, a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles. Caltech had no information on cause of death or where he died. Egyptian media reported that it was in the United States.

Pioneered femtochemistry field

Over nearly 40 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 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," Zewail said after winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Zewail helped develop four-dimensional electron microscopy, which can capture a real-time series of images of such fleeting processes that can be assembled into a sort of digital movie.

Childhood passion for science

Zewail was born in Damanhur, Egypt. He joined Caltech in 1976.

"I never ever believed that one day I would get a call from Sweden as a boy," he said after receiving the Nobel. "I had passion about science. My mother said I was going to burn the house [with chemistry experiments]."

Zewail authored some 600 scientific articles and 16 books and was showered with honors from around the world, including France's highest honor, the Legion d'Honneur, and Egypt's Order of the Grand Collar of the Nile.

Ahmed Zewail, winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and wife, Dema Zewail, a public health physician, pose for photographers before a news conference at California Institute of Technology, on Oct. 1, 1999. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

In 2009, the president named Zewail, a naturalized citizen, to the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and later that year made him the first U.S. science envoy to the Middle East.

He joined the United Nations Scientific Advisory Board in 2013.

Connections to Egypt 

In 2014, Zewail wrote an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times that urged the U.S. to avoid cutting aid to Egypt after a military coup that ousted the elected president and replaced him.

Zewail argued that constructive engagement and use of U.S. "soft power" such as trade agreements were important in keeping Egypt as a partner in the war on terrorism and other U.S. interests.

In a statement, the CEO of the American Chemical Society, Thomas Connelly Jr., described Zuweil as "an exemplar scholar and statesman who will be greatly missed."

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi expressed his condolences over the death, saying the country had lost a son and role model.

Egyptian media reported that Zewail's body would be flown to that country for burial.

Zewail is survived by his wife, Dema Faham, and four children.