Field of Science

Ahmed Zewail and the challenges of intercultural chemistry

A few days ago I was reading the fine biography of the Caltech chemist Ahmed Zewail who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his wonderful work on laser femtosecond spectroscopy which allows us to literally peer into the secret lives of molecules.

The book and the associated Nobel Prize website biography are instructive because they document in fond detail the inculturation of a highly talented and aspiring immigrant in the United States - an experience that has been shared by hundreds of millions of people since the founding of the Republic.

As Zewail details however, applying deeply ingrained, familiar-as-day cultural quirks in a new environment is not always successful.

"Arriving in the States, I had the feeling of being thrown into an ocean. The ocean was full of knowledge, culture, and opportunities, and the choice was clear: I could either learn to swim or sink. The culture was foreign, the language was difficult, but my hopes were high. I did not speak or write English fluently, and I did not know much about western culture in general, or American culture in particular. 
I remember a "cultural incident" that opened my eyes to the new traditions I was experiencing right after settling in Philadelphia. In Egypt, as boys, we used to kid each other by saying "I'll kill you", and good friends often said such phrases jokingly. I became friends with a sympathetic American graduate student, and, at one point, jokingly said "I'll kill you". I immediately noticed his reserve and coolness, perhaps worrying that a fellow from the Middle East might actually do it!"
I morosely wonder how this kind of a friendly retort might go down worse today in a post-9/11 world where fear of perceived entities continues to be sold to us by politicians and the media with copious mass appeal; I wonder if someone would be bull-headed enough to ignore such cultural differences and go straight to the authorities. Along the same lines I wonder how those famed World War 2 European emigre scientists, arriving here by the boatloads from openly fascist countries, might have fared in 2014.

I ardently hope their experiences would have been the same; no exaggerated fear of anything real or perceived comes anywhere close enough to deny this country the kind of immensely enriching experiences and dominance in science and other fields that amazingly talented immigrants like Zewail, Fermi, Weisskopf and Chargas have brought.


  1. Have you ever written a blog post about Nobel prize winners' research and contributions to science after they win the prize? I know most of them receive the prize sometimes decades after the initial work, but most of them usually are/were still active scientists for many more years after winning the prize.

    I am also wondering how many of them have won the prize for some work that had done some time in the past and never went into details of it and moved to other projects.

    My curiosity came from a talk by Schrock that I attended yesterday.

  2. For example, if I am not mistaken, last year Jack W. Szostak talked at Museum of Science and he said he's not interested in his Nobel work and focusing on different projects.

  3. I think Szostak's case is rare. I am aware of cases where someone has won the prize long after they have actively left research eg. Richard Heck


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