ABDUS SALAM: PAKISTAN’s FORGOTTEN NOBEL LAUREATE

26 Jan, 2022

Abdus Salam was awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics jointly with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for what is known as the Glashow-Salam-Weinberg theory of electro-weak forces. His name has been consigned to oblivion on account of religious prejudice and many in the younger generation hardly know of him. This is most unfortunate.

Salam was born in a village Santok Das in District Sahiwal on January 29, 1926. His father was a minor official in the Education Department and was posted in Jhang, where Salam grew up. His parents tutored him at home and, at age 7, he was admitted directly to class four in school. He burst on the academic scene with a bang in 1940, standing first in the matric exam in the region of jurisdiction of the Punjab University, which covered entire North-West India and Punjab province including Delhi. He had broken all previous records securing 765/850 marks. He did his intermediate from Government College Jhang in 1942, standing first in Punjab University securing 555/650 marks.

He joined Government College Lahore in 1942, from where he did his B.A. in 1944 and M.A. mathematics in 1946 standing first in the Punjab University and setting new records. He was the President of the College Students Union and also editor of the College magazine Ravi. While a student of B.A. he published his first research paper improving upon the work of the renowned mathematical genius Ramanujan.

Salam was awarded a 3-year scholarship for higher studies and was able to make it to Cambridge in the year 1946. Salam narrates that it took him two years to acquire the level of confidence which his English classmates possessed. He was able to pass the 3-year Tripos Mathematics exam in 2 years securing a first class. He had a year’s scholarship left and so he went to the renowned astrophysicist Fred Hoyle for advice. Hoyle advised him to take up a Physics Tripos. Salam had not been exposed to physics after class 12.  Still Salam succeeded in securing a First Class in physics Tripos, a feat that could not, earlier on, be achieved by two physicists, G.P. Thomson and Neville Mott, who went on to win Nobel prizes.

Salam was able to secure a scholarship from the Government of Pakistan for a Ph.D. at Cambridge. Having attended lectures of the great Nobel Laureate P.A.M. Dirac Salam had come round to the idea of pursuing a Ph.D. in physics. He was assigned to Nicholas Kemmer, who accepted him reluctantly – he already had eight Ph.D. students. Kemmer wriggled out of the onerous responsibility by suggesting that Salam go to a senior Ph.D. student P.T. Matthews, who had solved most of the problems in Quantum Field Theory, and ask him for any problems left. Matthews gave Salam a very difficult problem on the condition that if unsolved in six months, he would take it back.  It took Salam a mere six weeks to crack a problem that had eluded Kemmer’s prize student Matthews.  With this Salam became famous in the world of physics overnight. Salam’s work was enough for a Ph.D. but Cambridge regulations required that the thesis could not be submitted before 3 years.

Salam returned to Pakistan after spending time at Princeton, where he interacted with Robert Oppenheimer who had headed the atom bomb project of the U.S. He was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the Punjab University as well as GC. In November 1952 Salam was awarded his Ph.D. and continued working at GC and PU till the end of 1953. K.K. Aziz has stated that “…he had been insulted and humiliated so often by the college he loved and for which he had sacrificed the full facilities of St. John’s fellowship …”

Salam, in any case, would not have survived as a leading physicist in the barren intellectual and scientific landscape of Pakistan. It was a good decision to move back to Cambridge as senior lecturer. Within a few years, in January 1957, he was appointed Professor and head of the theoretical physics department at Imperial College. In the same year Salam published his two-component neutrino theory, a contribution of deep importance. In 1959 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, and was also awarded Sitara-e-Pakistan in addition to the Presidential Pride of Performance Award. Salam established the International Centre for Theoretical Physics at Trieste, Italy, in 1964. In 1967 he presented his work on electro-weak unification for which he won the 1979 Physics Nobel Prize. The same year he was also awarded Nishan-e-Imtiaz.

Ayub Khan had appointed Salam as Chief Adviser to the President of Pakistan in 1961. He was already a member of PAEC since 1958. He founded SUPARCO in 1961 and was its first Chairman (1961-64). Salam played a key role in the development of both PAEC and SUPARCO. He was also involved with the atom bomb project, initiated by Bhutto, until 1974, when he resigned from all the afore-mentioned positions because his community had been declared non-Muslim by an Act of Parliament. Salam was, however, in contact with PAEC leadership and I am aware that he was kept informed of the developments at the PAEC end of the nuclear program. The PAEC leadership were his “men”, from Munir Ahmad Khan to Dr. Ishfaq Ahmad, and others like Dr. Masud Ahmad, Head of the PAEC Bomb Design group.

Salam was married to his cousin Amtul Hafeez in 1949. In 1968 Salam also married Louise Johnson who became a professor of biochemistry at Oxford. He had four children from the first and two from the second marriage. Salam died of supra-nuclear palsy on November 21, 1996, at the residence of Louise. He is buried in Chenabnagar (former Rabwah) besides the graves of his parents. A note in his papers stated: “If for any reason it is not possible to take me to Rabwah, then let my tombstone read: ’He wished to lie at his mother’s feet’.”

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