The Story Behind the Stamp: Balian 1486-7, 14 June, 1998, Dr Ahmed Zewail

Bal.1486 Two stamps were issued on June 14, 1998, to commemorate the Franklin Institute Award given to Dr Zewail for his contribution to the understanding of chemical processes through a branch of science known as femtochemistry. On December 10, 1999, a miniature sheet (Balian 1534), was also issued to commemorate Dr Zewail's Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1999) "for his studies of the transition states of chemical reactions using femtosecond spectroscopy". Ahmed Zewail was born February 26, 1946, in Damanhur in the Nile Delta and grew up in the city of Disuq on the banks of the Rosetta branch of the Nile. As a boy he recalls that his inclinations were toward the physical sciences. Mathematics, mechanics, and chemistry were among the fields that gave him a special satisfaction. He futher admits that culturally his interests were focused on reading, music, some sports and playing backgammon. The great singer Um Kulthum had a major influence on his appreciation of music and the family would listern on the first Thursday of each month to Um Kulthum's concert - "Waslats" (three songs) - for more than three hours. He says his mind kept asking "how" and "why", a characteristic that has persisted from the beginning of his life. Even though chemistry required some memorisation, he was intrigued by the "mathematics of chemistry". As a boy, he wanted to reproduce and understand this and he recalls the time in his bedroom that he constructed a small apparatus, out of his mother's oil burner (for making Arabic coffee) and a few glass tubes, in order to see how wood is transformed into a burning gas and a liquid substance. He remembers this vividly, not only for the science, but also for the danger of burning down his parents' house! He was admitted to the faculty of science at Alexandria University, where he took four courses, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and geology, obtaining either excellent or very good grades throughout. He graduated with the highest honors - "Distinction with First Class Honor" - with marks of above 90 per cent in all areas of chemistry. With these scores, he was awarded, as a student, a monthly stipend of approximately 13, which was close to that of a university graduate, who made 17 at the time! After graduating with the degree of Bachelor of Science, he was appointed to a university position as a demonstrator ("moeid"), to carry on research toward a masters and then a PhD degree, and to teach undergraduates at the University of Alexandria. After his masters degree, his professors encouraged him to study for a doctorate overseas, and he was accepted by the University of Pennsylvania where he obtained his PhD in 1974. Early in 1974 he went to the University of California, Berkeley, as an IBM research fellow. Dr Zewail was appointed to the faculty at Caltech in 1976. In two years he was tenured, in 1982 becoming full professor, and since 1990 he has been employed at Caltech, where he has the Linus Pauling Chair of Chemical Physics. In a series of ground-breaking experiments in the 1980s, he developed what many have described as the world's fastest camera - a device that provides a laser flash measured in femtoseconds. This is a unit of measurement equal to 0.000000000000001 of a second, which is to a second what a second is to 32 million years. But this is the sort of speed required if chemists want to "freeze" the moment when atoms and molecules come together to form new compounds to find out how long it takes for bonds to break in molecules and for bonds to form.

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