Abdus Salam at Cambridge

21 Nov, 2010

Syed Mujahid Kamran

Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s only Nobel Laureate, won the 1979 Nobel Prize for his contribution to unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces. Before doing his PhD, Salam achieved the rare distinction of a double Tripos with first classes in both physics and mathematics. Salam had been admitted to St John’s College as a student of Tripos in mathematics. In an Urdu article written for the Government College magazine Ravi in 1989, Salam described aspects of his life at Cambridge: “I arrived at Cambridge in 1946 after having done M.A. from Government College, Lahore. In Cambridge classrooms, students sit in the same manner as namazis sit in a mosque before prayers. There is complete silence before the arrival of the lecturer….My class fellows had come straight from schools and were younger to me. It took me two years to attain the same level of self-confidence and aspirations that they possessed. They had come from an environment where, before dispatching all good students to Cambridge, every school teacher would tell them that they were the sons of a nation that had produced Newton and that the knowledge of science and mathematics was their heritage - if they wished they too could become Newtons.”

Mathematics Tripos was a three-year course that had three part exams - Part I (called prelim), II and III. Salam cleared the prelim in first class. Most of his classmates got a third division even though there were students from places like Eton and Harrow among them. To Salam’s query about their miserable performance, his tutor Wordie replied: “We set the exams of prelims so hard so as to make a distinction between just those boys and the people who are really serious.”

During his very first year at Cambridge, Salam was satisfied with his mathematical knowledge, but not with his general knowledge. He, therefore, spent time in the library reading the history of civilisations.

During his second year at Cambridge, Salam prepared for his Part II exam and also, sometimes, attended lectures of Part III, which were then delivered by Paul Dirac, who had won the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics. Salam rated Dirac above Einstein. He passed his Part II Tripos exam in 1948 securing a first class and qualifying for the title of Wrangler. It was exposure to Dirac that made Salam give up the aspiration to become a civil servant. And it was probably exposure to Dirac that created in him a desire to do physics. Salam stated later: “Until 1948, I did mathematics. I had by then already listened to the lectures of Dirac and Pauli and had drifted more and more towards physics. In 1948, when I had finished my mathematics course, I still had one year’s scholarship on and I had almost decided to do physics.”

In order to finally make up his mind, Salam sought the advice of Fred Hoyle. Hoyle advised him to do experimental physics. “You would never be able to look a physicist in the eye….You follow me? Physics is experiment, not theory. Science is experim-ent….You must, even if it kills you, take this last year for experimental physics.” Salam accepted Hoyle’s advice. In accepting Hoyle’s advice Salam had taken up a challenge which few people had successfully met. It is not that Wranglers before him had not successfully completed the physics course in one year - the challenge was to secure a first class in physics in one year. His tutor J.M. Wordie had a “theory”. The “theory” was that it was possible for a Wrangler to secure a first in physics in one year even though some of the most intelligent people, G.P. Thomson (Nobel Prize 1937) and Neville Mott (Nobel Prize 1977), had only managed to obtain a second class in physics in one year. No wonder Wordie “rubbed his hands in glee” when he found out that Salam had opted for the physics challenge.

Years later Salam stated: “By God, it was hard. In Cavendish, there was the old equipment, ancient equipment, and nothing but Rutherford’s own equipment - and you were supposed to make it work. You had to blow glass tubes yourself and carry them three flights of steps. It was a torture. They wanted it to be torture and they succeeded.”

How then did he pass? Salam’s supervisor told him: “You had done so well in all six theory papers that they (examiners) did not even ask for your practical result.” Salam had been avoiding (Sir) Denys Wilkinson ever since his disastrous encounter with him in the laboratory. He ran into Wilkinson while looking at the notice board where the result had been posted. Wilkinson asked him what class had he obtained. When Salam said he had obtained a first class, Wilkinson was so surprised that he “turned a full circle” on his heels and said: “Shows how wrong you can be about people!” Salam was to surprise more teachers and colleagues at Cambridge, and elsewhere, in the coming years.

(Professor Abdus Salam’s 14th death anniversary falls today).

The writer is a physicist and currently Vice Chancellor of the University of the Punjab. He is writing a biography of Abdus Salam, a Pakistani Qadiani.

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