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Nobel Laureate to Give Baccalaureate Address

Ahmed Zewail will receive honorary Doctor of Science

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Baccalaureate speaker Ahmed Zewail says that “a major cause of troubles around the world is due to ignorance, not only in the lack of basic education, but also due to misinformation about cultures and religions.” Photo courtesy of Ahmed Zewail

Ahmed Zewail, a Nobel Prize–winning chemist and technology advisor to President Barack Obama, will deliver the Baccalaureate address at Marsh Chapel on May 22 at 11 a.m., and will receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree at the main Commencement ceremony. Zewail is the recipient of many international awards for his contributions to science and the public interest.

Zewail, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, where he is the director of the Moore Foundation’s Center for Physical Biology, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999 for his work in femtoscience, which employs high-powered lasers to observe atomic motion over fractions of a second.

Farouk El-Baz, a research professor and director of BU’s Center for Remote Sensing, says the implications of Zewail’s discoveries are far-reaching. The ability to measure and photograph interactions at the atomic scale in the “tiniest possible fraction of a second that you can imagine,” he says, means scientists could manipulate atoms in new ways.

“When we began, it was thought unreal to observe atoms in the course of matter’s transformation,” Zewail says. “The applications now span a number of areas, from dentistry and brain imaging to lithography and materials processing.”

In 2009, President Obama appointed Zewail to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and also named him the first United States Science Envoy to the Middle East.

“As I see it, a major cause of troubles around the world is due to ignorance, not only in the lack of basic education, but also due to misinformation about cultures and religions,” says Zewail. “It seems to me that using useful knowledge, through science diplomacy, is a powerful soft power for enlightenment and, incidentally, costs much less.”

Zewail travels widely in the Arab world to promote the idea that scientific knowledge can help further economic development.

El-Baz and Zewail, both born in Egypt, met in the White House and have since worked together as advisors in Egypt to promote education and scientific development. They were members of the first board of directors of the Library of Alexandria and later served on Egypt’s Supreme Council for Science and Technology.

Zewail earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Alexandria and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. He did a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, before joining the California Institute of Technology faculty in 1976.

Ahmed Zewail is one of six honorary degree recipients at this year’s BU Commencement. Victoria Reggie Kennedy, an advocate on behalf of children and families, will be presented with a Doctor of Laws. Jacques Pépin, chef, television personality, and author, will receive the Doctor of Humane Letters. Noted painter and sculptor Frank Stella will be awarded a Doctor of Fine Arts. NPR journalist Nina Totenberg, the NPR journalist, will be presented with a Doctor of Humane Letters. Commencement speaker Katie Couric, the Emmy-award winning broadcast journalist and the first solo woman anchor of a network news broadcast, will be awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters. 

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

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