Three years ago when the Nobel prize in Physics was announced, I was as usual attending a dull and insipid lecture on nuclear physics. As soon as I came out of the hal, a friend from the same department shouted at me from a distance, “Nasir, the Nobel in physics this year has been won by three physicists for their contribution to LIGO and detection of gravitational waves”. I was thrilled as the prize had been won by physicists who specialised in one of my areas of intrest. Then, as we were coming
out of the university and were on our way towards the Sir Syed gate, we started talking of scientific backwardness in the Muslim world and the reasons for it as such. All of a sudden I asked my friend if he had heard of Prof Abdus Salam? No, he answered. The answer left me shocked. How could a student pursuing masters in Physics know not of Prof salam! But this ignorance was not for the first of its kind for me. Prior to joining university I had the same experience in a local private school of my area where I taught for more than 6 months.The students and teachers there had heard names of Einstein, Newton and Hawking but not of Prof Salam.
So, this article is a small attempt on my part to introduce the physicist to general readers.
Prof Salam was born on 29 Jan 1931 in a lower-middle class family in Jhang, Punjab. He began his primary school education at the age of six. For his higher education his father enrolled him in Lahore University. At university Salam studied English and urdu along with Mathematics. He enjoyed classical Urdu poetry and it was during this period he wrote his first paper on Ghalib which appeared in the Urdu journal “Abdidu”. In English he enjoyed the rapier wit of Oscar Wilde and T.E Lawrence’s “The seven pillars of wisdom”. He pursued his masters in Mathematics from the same university and not only topped the exam but set a new record by scoring 573 out of 600 marks.This extraordinary milestone won him a scholarship in Cambridge for further studies.
Salam loved Cambridge and flourished there. It was at Cambridge that he come across heavyweights in physics like Freeman Dyson, Fred Hoyle, and Paul Dirac. Unlike many scientists who do their best work in solitude, Salam functioned best when he worked with a partner with whom he could argue out his ideas and who could spur his inventiveness.
Prof Salam’s work in Physics has been far-reaching and highly influential. He made a fundamental contribution to electromagnetic theory for which he shared the Nobel prize in Physics in the year 1979 with two other physicists, making him only the 2nd Muslim to win this prestigious award and the only Muslim to win it in the field of Physics. He also made a major contribution in quantum field theory and neutrino physics. He taught Advanced Mathematics at King’s College london as a faculty member. Among his notable achievements are his work on the Grand unified theory, super symmetry and renormalisation. In recognition of his stature as a physicist, Prof Salam was invited by Cambridge university to deliver the third Paul Dirac memorial lecture in 1988. He also made a significant contribution to the 2012 success in the search for the Higgs Boson.
Prof Salam was quite keen on seeing science flourishing in the Muslim world. For him, physics was a shared heritage of mankind and not of east or west. He almost singlehandedly established the ICTP, a research center in Italy which brings together physicists from developing countries. In Pakistan Salam contributed to developments in theoretical and particle physics. He was the founding director of the space and upper atmosphere research center (SUPARCO), and for the establishment of the Theoretical Physics Group (TPG) in the pakistan atomic energy commission. Prof Salam also played a leading role in the development of Pakistan’s first atomic bomb project.
Prof Salam’s legacy as a teacher and mentor is unparalleled in the Muslim world. Among his notable students include Pakistani nuclear physicists Pervez Hoodbhoy and Ishfaq Ahmad.The recognition of Pakistani physicists at the world level owes much to Salam under whose dynamic and vibrant mentorship Pakistani physicists tackled and solved some of the outstanding problems in physics and mathematics. Prof Salam’s legacy continues to inspire many students to excel in the field of Physics. In 2018 a young Kashmiri researcher at AMU dedicated his PhD thesis to Prof salam.
Why a physicist of Prof Salam’s stature remains unheard of in the Muslim world? The answer lies in sectarianism. Prof salam belonged to the marginalised Ahmadiya community. The sectarian divide has blinded the Muslim community from recognising their own legends and brilliant minds. It is still not too late to celebrate the legacy of this physicist who did so much for the advancement of science in the Muslim world in particular and in developing nations in general. If science is the shared heritage of mankind as Prof Salam rightly believed, so is his own legacy a common heritage of the world that we need to celebrate and feel proud of.
In order to revive a culture of science and critical thinking in the Muslim world, the understanding and knowledge of Muslim history is a must, as that would provide much food for thought on what has gone wrong and what needs to be done.The first step in that direction would be the recognition of the legacy of physicists like Abdus Salam. Unless we celebrate minds like him, the revival of scientific culture in the Muslim world is a distant dream.
—The writer is a student of physics. [email protected]