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Nobel Prize Winner Hails the Power of Knowledge

Packed crowd at Marsh Chapel listens to Baccalaureate address

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In the video above, Ahmed Zewail gives the Baccalaureate address to graduating students in Marsh Chapel on Sunday morning. Video by BU Productions. Photo by Cydney Scott

Ahmed Zewail, the Nobel Prize–winning chemist and advisor to President Barack Obama, sprinkled humor with advice to graduates in his stirring Baccalaureate address to the Class of 2011 at Marsh Chapel Sunday morning.

The Egyptian-born scientist brought a worldview to Commonwealth Avenue, praising university students in his home country for their “impeccable organization” during the recent revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak and for using science—not violence—as a means of bringing democracy to Egypt.

“In my generation, we would probably have used stones, sticks, and guns in order to rise up,” Zewail said. “In your generation, they used Facebook, Twitter, and SMS. Without the discovery of the chip, wireless technology, and the internet, this Egyptian revolution may never have succeeded in a peaceful and civilized transformation.”

Zewail, who was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree at BU’s 138th Commencement later on Sunday, received a standing ovation from the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd in Marsh Chapel. President Robert A. Brown, University Provost Jean Morrison, and Marsh Chapel Dean Robert Hill also addressed the graduates, who stood out like bright scarlet dots among dozens of friends, family, and BU faculty and staff.

Scott Allen Jarrett (CFA’99,’08), director of music at Marsh Chapel, led the choir and musicians in a stunning performance, awing listeners with the African American spiritual “My God Is a Rock” and a thundering rendition of “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.”

Zewail’s words were as powerful as the music was moving. He told the congregation that after receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999, people began asking him the secret to his success—a question, he joked, that “people never asked me before.”

“I believe it was the passion for science that supplied the energy and it was the optimism that made the almost impossible possible,” said Zewail, whose research focuses on femtoscience, which allows for the study of atomic motion over split second spans of time.

“Success comes to the prepared mind,” he told the assembled crowd. “Success is not like rain that falls from the sky equally on every person. Success is what you reap when what you sow is passion and optimism.”

He urged the graduates never to take their BU education for granted, pointing out that such an education remains unaffordable to the 80 percent of the six billion people on the planet who live on $1 a day. He advised the Class of 2011 to have a dream and work toward it and to never listen to pessimists, but rather forge ahead in whatever field they are most passionate about.

Zewail is 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. In 2009, Obama appointed him 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.

The renowned scientist earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Alexandria in Egypt, before coming to the United States in 1969 on what he described as “a voyage, a quest for knowledge” in the form of a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, before joining the California Institute of Technology faculty in 1976.

In his parting words, Zewail sought to inspire the soon-to-be graduates. “The country needs you to build its future,” he said, “and the world will be a better place when knowledge replaces ignorance.”

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

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