Volume 18 • Issue 2

Photo by Zewail Collections, Cal Tech

The Last Word

— Ahmed Zewail

Building Bridges: Science, Technology, Faith and Global Unity

Editor’s Note: Ahmed Zewail is the Linus Pauling Chair Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Physics, and Director of the Physical Biology Center for UST and the NSF Laboratory for Molecular Sciences at the California Institute of Technology. In 1999, Professor Zewail was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in femtoscience. He holds a B.S. and M.S. from Alexandria University in Egypt and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He was featured in the documentary film “Nobelity.” Professor Zewail has four children—one of whom is Dr. Maha Zewail-Foote, assistant professor of chemistry at Southwestern—and resides in California.

Building bridges between cultures and nations is not easy, but the circumstances of the modern world do not permit any culture or nation to remain isolated and insulated. In this century, we are fortunate in having the means to construct such bridges, the mobility to acquire the learning of other cultures and the human contact that enhances tolerance of other cultures and religions. My own personal experience may be relevant. I am “bicultural.” By my 50th birthday, I had spent almost equal amounts of time in Egypt and the United States, in the culture of the East and in the culture of the West.

Science is a universal culture. In the big picture, this universality unites scientists in their search for the truth, no matter what their origin, race or social background. When I look back at the origins of the science of time and matter, which is central to our research at Caltech, I find a real dialogue. The Eastern, Egyptian civilization I came from was the first to introduce the astronomical calendar around 4240 B.C., measuring accurately the period of a day in a year and, by 1500 B.C., the period of an hour in a day.

The Western, U.S. civilization I live in gave the world the time resolution of a femtosecond, a millionth of a billionth of a second, the speed needed to record atoms in motion. The Greek Democritus gave the concept of the atom, invisible until recently, to the world 25 centuries ago. How wonderful and significant that civilizations of different cultures and times, through science, have introduced enormous benefits to all humanity. It was the rational tradition—in this case of science—that facilitated the building of bridges over millennia of time.

The complexity of world affairs is real and no one can claim that the solutions to world problems are obvious. Whether because of their glorious past or their present geographical and cultural richness, all nations have an important role in helping to solve world problems. As the sole superpower in the world today, the United States has a special role because of its economic, scientific and military power, but all nations together share responsibility for a peaceful coexistence in this world.

While the strongest country on Earth must play a fundamental leadership role in combating terrorism-together with the international community-America must not lose sight of its leadership role in working for human rights and reducing the gap between rich and poor, between haves and have-nots.

While the strongest country on Earth must play a fundamental leadership role in combating terrorism—together with the international community—America must not lose sight of its leadership role in working for human rights and reducing the gap between rich and poor, between haves and have-nots. The United States has the opportunity to lead the globe to becoming a united world, to get all peoples to think of each other as fellow human beings.

I vividly remember the American image in the 1960s of a man going to the moon for the sake of humanity. Neil Armstrong said in his first words on the moon, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps are two additional examples of visionary initiatives indicative of an America doing great things for humanity. True, the United States cannot possibly solve every problem in the world, but as the most powerful nation, it should stand tall as a leader and serve as a role model for others. People around the globe look up to America and many wish to have an American system of freedom and values. America can be a real partner in helping solve many problems around the world.

If history is a coherent and evolutionary process, as argued by Francis Fukuyama, liberal democracy may constitute the end point of humankind’s ideological evolution and the final form of human government, and thus, it constitutes the “end of history.” The argument is supported by the success of the system’s economics (free market) and by the successful emergence of the system (democracy) over rival ideologies such as hereditary monarchy, fascism and communism. This view is controversial, as many believe that Western democracy is not the only viable model of government for the rest of the world; other forms or combinations of systems may be appropriate for different cultures. However, whatever the nature of the system, I believe that human liberty and value—basic principles of democracy—are essential for leaps of progress and for the best utilization of human resources. These principles should be exported to the have-nots, but with an understanding of cultural and religious differences, not with hegemony.

Ultimately, with the power of science and technology, and with faith, we will unveil the true nature of our unique consciousness as Homo sapiens, the significance of our genetic unity despite race, culture, or religion and our need for appreciating binding human values. The greatest enemy of human aspiration is ignorance, whether it manifests itself in distorted views of faith, distorted views about other peoples, the failure to recognize the importance and use of new knowledge and new technology, or misunderstandings about nutrition and diseases. It is the source of virtually all human misery.

We need to build bridges between people, cultures and nations. Even if we disagree on some issues, these bridges will help us recognize that we live on one planet with common objectives for peaceful coexistence. The key is not to ignore the have-nots, not to ignore the frustrated part of the world. Poverty and hopelessness are sources for terrorism and disruption of world order. Better communications and partnerships will lessen the divide between “us” and “them.” We must not allow for the creation of barriers through slogans such as the “clash of civilizations” or the “conflict of religions”—the future is in dialogue, not in conflicts or clashes. We need visionary leaders who make history, not leaders who envision the end of history.

—Reprinted with permission of Templeton Foundation Press, www.templetonpress.org.