Last week, it was 31 years since Dr Salam was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Three weeks from now would be his death anniversary. It was, and still is because of state religion, political role of religion and intolerance and bigotry in society that Dr Salam remains uncelebrated as a hero in Pakistan. His status as out greatest citizen, not just the greatest scientist remains hidden under a national obsession with labeling other people and communities as heretics, kafirs and wajib-ul-qatl. On this occasion, we’d like to remember what a person he was, what he stood for and how his country disowned him. We have included a video of his Noble prize ceremony, an op-ed by me, an op-ed written by Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy that was published 14 years ago just before Salam’s death and another one written by Dr Munir Ahmed Khan shortly after Salam’s death.
There is also a documentary being made on the life of this great son of the soil. Please feel free to contribute whatever you can through the website of the documentary.
In memory of Dr Salam —Shahid Saeed
First published in The Daily Times, August 20, 2010
On October 15, 1979, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that the world’s highest award in Physics would be awarded to three scientists “for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles”. One of them was named Abdus Salam and he was born in Jhang in 1926 to a proud working class Punjabi family. He would go on to become one of the most important theoretical physicists of his day, contribute to one of the most important theories in Physics, the Grand Unified Theory and die a proud Pakistani on November 21, 1996 in Oxford after living a life where he was celebrated as one of the greatest minds of the century. His country however would not celebrate him as a hero and his name remain unknown to a large percentage. The tragedy of his treatment at the hands of his countrymen is unparalleled and there is still visible uneasiness and perhaps even fear in accepting him as a national hero.
Salam left this country once his research work was not appreciated and even frowned upon by the administrators at GC. He had already established himself as a leading theoretical physicist of the day with his doctoral thesis and was given a professorship at Imperial College, aged just 31. He served as the Scientific Secretary of the United Nations Atoms for Peace Conference and remained the Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of Pakistan from 1961 to 1974. He was instrumental in setting up PINSTECH and SUPARCO and remained a board member of PAEC for quite a long time as well. With the IAEA’s support, Salam established the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) at Trieste in Italy since the Italian government made the most generous offer for the establishment of the centre. Throughout his life he championed the cause of his country and remained loyal to the cause of scientific advancement in third world countries.
When the Nobel Prize was announced, the government of India was the first to invite him and the government of Pakistan only reacted when the High Commissioner in London intimated Islamabad of the Delhi invitation. Out of the 42 honorary doctorates bestowed upon him by universities across the globe, five were from Indian universities. Later, he delivered the convocation address at the Guru Dev Nanak University, Amritsar, in theth (pure) Punjabi and the university had on his request invited four of his primary school teachers as well. The prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, invited him to tea at her residence, made tea for him with her own hands and sat down at his feet saying this was her traditional way of honouring great people. Country after country, he was welcomed as a state guest, often welcomed by heads of states at airports. In contrast to all this, on his arrival back in his homeland in December 1979 he was received at Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad by the military secretaries to the governors and the president. The Quaid-e-Azam University had to shift the function of the award of an honorary doctorate to the National Assembly Hall because students of the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami) had protested and disrupted the event. The event in Lahore had to be shifted to the Senate Hall because of similar protests at the University of Punjab. The protesters threatened to murder him. His alma mater, Government College, did not even invite him.
In his book The Coffee House of Lahore, Pakistan’s pre-eminent historian K K Aziz narrates the incident surrounding the January 1983 honorary degree award upon Dr Salam by the University of Khartoum (Sudan). Saudi Arabia has immense political influence in Sudan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia tried to intervene and get the event cancelled because of Dr Salam’s religious beliefs. On January 7, the Saudi ambassador met the Sudanese President Field Marshal Nimeiry and asked him to get the event cancelled. The faculty of the university asserted their autonomy and threatened to resign in protest if there were to be any political intervention. The event went ahead but not without controversy as the Secretary General of the Arab Science Foundation found it necessary to interrupt Dr Salam numerous times in his speech. Dr Salam later told Aziz that at an event at the Presidency, Mard-e-Momin Ziaul Haq asked him loudly in the presence of everybody, “Will you offer prayers with everybody or separately?” asserting that he was of a different faith. These are not one-off treatments as in 1986 he wanted to become the Director General of UNESCO but the government of Pakistan refused to nominate him as its candidate. Instead, Lt General Sahibzada Yaqub Ali Khan was nominated as our candidate (he was no less a great man but there is little comparison between the two). In contrast to his motherland, Britain and Italy offered to support his candidature if he were to become their citizen.
Today, the world’s biggest particle physics laboratory, CERN, is conducting the largest experiment in the history of mankind at the Large Hadron Collider in search of fundamental answers to the creation of the universe. The Higgs Boson, predicted and worked on by Salam, is at the centre of this research and CERN proudly boasts a street named in his honour. What was this country able to give to this great man? A solitary Nishan-i-Imtiaz? Abdul Qadeer Khan has two of those and the notorious Sharifuddin Pirzada has one as well. The fact that a leading Urdu magazine, Takbeer, accused Salam of selling our nuclear secrets is just a reminder of how his countrymen treated him. We issued a solitary stamp in his honour, but so did the African country of Benin. The ICTP today is named in his honour in contrast to the National Centre of Physics in Islamabad. In fact, except the Department of Mathematics at GCU, there is no landmark, no institute, no building, no department or university in this country named after the greatest scientist this country has ever produced. Salam has certainly been honoured far more by countries other than his own and perhaps even disowned by his own country.
He was eventually buried in Rabwah (renamed Chenab Nagar in pursuance of the persecution and harassment of the Ahmedis) but the local magistrate had the tombstone defaced and got the word “Muslim” erased from it. Even in his death, his faith was to be the basis of maltreatment and the people of his community live as second grade citizens. Something the government of Pakistan can do today is perhaps name the new Islamabad airport after him. Name an institute or two after him, or maybe even financially and administratively help the documentary being made on his life by Sabiha Sumar and Zakir Thaver (a letter in this regard received no response from any government quarter).
It has been 31 years since he became our first and only Nobel laureate, nearly 14 years since his death. The doctrinal differences over faith seem to have far more importance to this country than anything else. Can we forgive ourselves for how we treated one of the greatest — if not the greatest — citizens of Pakistan? Is there any redemption for the people of Pakistan? It should be a moment of deep reflection for us all.
Abdus Salam — Past And Present by Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy
First published in The News International, 29 January, 1996
“Dear Abdus, On 29 January, 1996 you will celebrate your 70th birthday and I should like to send to you the best wishes in the name of your European colleagues…..I would like to remember the day when I first met you. It was in December 1956 when you gave a talk at the Rutherford Laboratory about your two-component theory in a colloquium which was chaired by Wolfgang Pauli and when at the end he publicly apologized that he had discouraged you to publish this fundamentally new theory…Apart from your scientific successes, the foundation of ICTP in Trieste was one of the greatest achievements in this century.”
In the above lines Herwig Schopper, President of the European Physical Society, pays tribute to one of the most remarkable men of science of the 20th century, Professor Abdus Salam. In alluding to Salam’s unpublished 1956 two-component theory of the neutrino, Schopper reminds us that Salam had narrowly missed credit for a fundamental scientific discovery and for which, instead, two American physicists shared the Nobel Prize in 1958. Had Salam not made an unfortunate error of judgment, he would have had not one but two Nobel Prizes today.
Tragically, the numerous congratulatory messages from the world’s prominent scientists might be incomprehensible to the man to whom they have been sent. Now confined to his wheelchair, he is the victim of a mysterious neurological disorder leading to a gradual loss of control over body functions. Visitors who have met him in recent months bring back little good news. Today it is hard to recognize in him the Salam of yesteryears — enthusiastic, vibrant, bluntly authoritarian, and with a mind sharper than a razor’s edge.
The Salam of days gone by was a man visibly possessed by two passions. First, an urge to understand the nature of physical reality using the tools of mathematical physics. Second, the desire to put Pakistan on the high road to prosperity through science.
Salam’s first passion brought him fame and recognition. In 1949 this young prodigy, born in a very ordinary lower middle class family in Jhang, earned a first-class degree in physics from Cambridge University in just a year. Then in 1950 he solved an important problem in renormalisation theory and instantly became a minor celebrity. In 1951 he returned to Government College, Lahore, but found to his disappointment that research was not encouraged, even frowned upon. Without a library or colleagues to talk to, he reluctantly went back to Britain in 1954.
By the early ’60s, Salam was already one of the world’s top particle physicists with an enviable reputation in this most difficult and fundamental area of science. But Salam was a political animal as well. He skillfully used his growing reputation to push his European and American colleagues into supporting his dream of a major centre for physicists from the developing world. With his unhappy period at Government College at the back of his mind, Salam wanted a place where third world physicists could practise the advanced science of the West without being forced to become part of the brain drain, as he himself had been.
In 1964, supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Salam succeeded in setting up the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy. Why Italy and not Pakistan? The reason was simple: Pakistan showed no interest, but Italy wanted the centre and was willing to put down a lot of money for it. Today the ICTP is a sprawling complex of buildings regularly visited by scientists engaged in research from over 50 developing countries. There have been over a thousand visits by Pakistani scientists.
Combining administration with research is never simple. But over a period of four decades, Salam won about 20 international awards which, apart from the 1979 Nobel Prize, includes the Hopkins Prize of Cambridge University for the most outstanding contribution to physics in 1957-1958, the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society, the Oppenheimer Memorial Prize, the Adam’s Prize, and many others. But more than a winner of prestigious prizes, posterity will record Salam, together with Steven Weinberg, as one of the unifiers of the apparently different fundamental forces which govern the universe.
In recent years, Salam’s unified electroweak theory has been elevated to the status of a touchstone. Now generally called the Standard Model of particle physics, it has been tested in dozens of clever experiments and has passed with flying colours in each. Today the search for the “Higgs” particle, predicted by Salam, is considered the number one priority in the world of physics. Billions of dollars continue to be spent on building accelerators with energies high enough to produce this highly elusive particle.
With prizes, awards, seminars and meetings, the world of physics has paid its due to Salam. But what about his country?
Under Ayub Khan, Salam wielded considerable influence. As the chief scientific adviser to the President, he was instrumental in launching a massive training programme for scientists, in setting up PINSTECH as a high quality research institution, and in creating the space agency SUPARCO. His influence continued, albeit to a lesser extent, in the Yahya and early Bhutto years.
1974 marked the turning point in Salam’s life. By a decision of the National Assembly, the Ahmedis were excommunicated from Islam. Salam resigned from his official position as chief scientific adviser in protest. On Bhutto’s request, he agreed to help informally. But from then onwards his involvement with the Bhutto government was more symbolic than substantial.
Somewhat paradoxically, Salam enjoyed better relations with General Zia, who received him as a state guest and awarded him the Nishan-i-Imtiaz in 1979. However, Salam was carefully excluded from exercising any real influence over scientific matters. Benazir Bhutto, on the other hand, during her first term as Prime Minister, felt no need to accede to Salam’s request for an audience with her. And Nawaz Sharif, at a Government College function, topped it all by reading from a list of college alumni who had achieved distinction and failed to mention the most distinguished one of them all.
Why did the leaders of government in Pakistan choose to drive out the single Pakistani scientist who put this country on the scientific map of the world? The answer is obvious. Our leaders have always acquiesced, and even pandered to, the growth of intolerance in the country. Salam was but an incidental victim; to defend him was considered not worth the political risk.
In 1979, when Salam visited Islamabad at General Zia’s invitation, the physics department at Quaid-i-Azam University wanted Salam to give a lecture on his Nobel Prize winning theory. But, because of threats from a student group with a penchant for violence, this invitation was never conveyed to him by the university authorities. There are other examples: a cover story in the weekly Takbeer accused Salam of selling out Pakistan’s nuclear secrets. This perverted concotion would have been amusing, rather than simply disgusting, had it not been so laced with crude insults and abuse.
Fearful of being attacked, many admirers of Salam’s achievements have chosen to remain silent. Consequently, unlike India which has science institutions named after men like Saha, Raman, Bose and Bhabha, Pakistan does not have any institution named after it’s one and only great scientist. Nor is his name made known to children through their text-books, or through television and radio, even though the names of far lesser persons are. Had Salam been an Indian, there is little doubt that he would have been in the ranks of his equals.
Prejudices against Salam are not simply a matter of the past. Some months ago the government created a committee which would set up a new centre for physics in Islamabad. Reportedly after a brief internal debate, the committee decided against naming the centre after Salam. No reason was given.
And so it puzzles me why, in spite of all this, Salam remained committed to Pakistan. Was it just plain stubbornness? Or was it that certain beliefs acquired in one’s early years remain, no matter what? Whatever the reasons, this commitment was transparent. Salam kept his Pakistani citizenship, spurning British and Italian offers. At his Trieste centre, all Pakistanis — including staunch anti-Ahmedis — got preferential treatment and had easier access to the director. Sometimes visitors from other countries resented this. I also think Salam’s favouritism was wrong as a matter of principle, but it is a clear indication of his deep attachment to his land of birth.
More importantly, for over a decade, Salam has quietly been supporting needy science students throughout Pakistan with his Nobel Prize money. The money has also been used to purchase scientific equipment for half a dozen Pakistani colleges, and to support an annually awarded prize for scientific research.
Life’s long journey, and debilitating illness, made Salam deeply sensitive to estrangement from his country. How much so, I saw from close at a 3 day conference held in Trieste to honour his retirement from Imperial College, London. Professor Ghulam Murtaza and I had been invited from the physics department of Quaid-e-Azam University to attend this veritable feast for the intellect. The world’s top physicists deliberated upon startling new clues to the birth of the universe, down to relatively more mundane matters like quarks and superconductivity.
One the third day of the conference, Salam was presented an honorary doctoral degree by the University of Petersburg. The conference hall was full. Flanked on his left by Nobel Prize winners C.N. Yang and J. Schrieffer, and on his right by the rector of the University, Salam listened from his wheelchair but made no attempt to speak. At the end of the formal proceedings, a multitude of people from the international scientific community thronged forward and stood patiently in line to offer congratulations.
As I watched, it was the turn of a nervous young Pakistani visitor to the ICTP. “Sir, I am a student from Pakistan. We are very proud of you…” The rest I was unable to hear clearly. Salam’s shoulders shook and tears coursed silently down his face.
A feeling of deep sadness overcame me. Nature has chosen to be cruel to Salam. But nature is to be forgiven because it is blind, both in its gifts and its punishments. Much less easy to forgive is the treatment that we in Pakistan have given to our best.
Salam passes into history by Munir Ahmed Khan
First published in The News International (Pakistan), 24 November, 1996
Very few Pakistanis have brought such honour and respect to their homeland as Prof. Salam. He was not only the most outstanding scientist of Pakistan but perhaps the greatest scientist produced by any Muslim country in this century. His health failed him when he reached the pinnacle of his achievement and could not enjoy the fruits of his life- long labours and ceaseless endeavours. He was working on new vistas in science which could have won him a second Nobel Prize.
Besides being a scientist of world renown, he was a visionary, a patriot, a servant of the third world and above all an unassuming human being. His success in extending the frontiers of science only deepened his humility and strengthened his commitment to his fellow countrymen. He leaves behind thousands of highly trained scientists in many countries of the Third World particularly in Pakistan who will carry forward his mission well into the 21st century. While he did so much for us and for the developing countries there is little that we can do to repay the debt we owe him.
I came to know Salam first as a contemporary in college in 1942 and later as the leader in a common struggle for science and technology in Pakistan, and above all as a friend. He was already a legend in his college days beating all records set by the Hindus in all university examinations. He not only excelled in his studies but achieved the rare distinction of being the chief editor of the Ravi and the president of the Government College Union at the same time. He left for Cambridge in 1947. Before he returned I had left for USA in 1951. But we remained in contact particularly after I joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1958.
One morning in September 1960, he came to my office in Vienna and said that he had a wonderful idea to set up a centre for theoretical physics under IAEA. It would cost very little – just pencil and paper and could be a meeting place for the scientists from East and West and break the isolation of physicists in the developing countries, who were losing touch with the world of science. When I asked for an appointment for him, Prof. Seligman, head of research department at IAEA asked, “Who is Professor Salam?” When told that Salam was the youngest Fellow of the Royal Society, his tone changed. Later Salam and Seligman became good friends, but poor Seligman could not live down his faux pas for the next thirty years.
He made his proposal for the establishment of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) at the general conference of the IAEA soon thereafter, but the idea met with strong resistance from the advanced countries. The IAEA scientific advisory committee which included Nobel laureate Rabi and Homi Bhaba unanimously opposed it. Privately Bhaba wanted the centre to be at Bombay and offered Salam to join him. Salam refused. He marshalled the support of the leading theoretical physicists from all over the world including Nobel laureate Hans Bethe who all respected him. Finally the Agency overruled its scientific advisory committee and approved the project. Salam wanted the centre to be established in Pakistan and requested Ayub Khan for an initial grant of a million dollars for buildings and facilities, but the Pakistan government rejected the idea. Reluctantly he agreed to go along with the offer from Trieste in Italy. He never gave up the idea of establishing a branch of the centre in Islamabad, because he always wanted to return to his own country and train young physicists. But his dream for a physics centre in Pakistan never came true.
His vision of what science could do for accelerating the economic and social development of the Third World went far beyond theoretical physics. He demonstrated this over the years by continuously expanding the role of ICTP from theoretical physics to cover computers, electronics, chemistry, energy, environment, bio-technology and genetic engineering. He not only held meetings in these areas at Trieste but founded allied institutes in some of these fields there. He awakened the developing countries to the crucial role that the science had to pay for their survival in the 21st century. He fired the imagination of many presidents and heads of government in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia to give greater priority to science, but alas his repeated pleas to Pakistani leadership did not have the same effect. He tried and tried but failed to persuade Pakistan to establish high technology centres, MIT type universities and other infrastructure for science in our country. This is a great misfortune and failure on the part of our policy makers and politicians who have not yet grasped the crucial importance of science for our future development and survival.
Salam has been our window to the world of science because the greatest physicists of our time have respected his opinion, and provided opportunities for scientist from the third world to get training in the top most research institutions and universities of the world. Besides his outstanding contributions to theoretical physics which earned him a Nobel Prize, his greatest legacy has been the building up of scientific manpower in the third world.
Prof. Salam made invaluable contributions to the development of science in Pakistan and remained as the Chief Scientific Advisor to the President and a member of the PAEC for 14 years. He became the mentor of the PAEC since its very inception. He helped select the site for Pinstech and support the acquisition of Kanupp. He encouraged the government to train scientists abroad and helped them obtain placement in key universities and laboratories through his personal contacts. He was responsible for the establishment of Suparco. He advised Ayub Khan to seek US help for waterlogging and salinity problems in Pakistan which led to the Revelle Mission. Together with him I had the privilege of preparing a proposal for the establishment of nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Pakistan in late 1960’s. Ayub Khan deferred the matter on economic grounds. Thus Pakistan lost a golden opportunity for acquiring this important technology when it was readily available to us without safeguards and at a nominal cost more than thirty years ago.
When he received the Nobel Prize in 1979, he was immediately invited by Indira Gandhi to visit India. He said that the first country he would visit should be Pakistan which he did as a state guest. He enjoyed tremendous respect not only among the scientists but heads of government and states in numerous countries and some of them became his personal friends. Once while visiting Beijing I was told that the Chinese Academy hosted a dinner in his honour which was to be attended by the prime minister. However breaking all protocol, the President of China also decided to attend the dinner just to honour Salam. The South Korean President once asked Salam how a South Korean scientist could get Nobel Prize.
My last meeting with Salam was only three months ago. His disease had taken its toll and he was unable to talk. Yet he understood what was said. I told him about the celebration held in Pakistan on his seventieth birthday. He kept staring at me. He had risen above praise. As I rose to leave he pressed my hand to express his feelings as if he wanted to thank everyone who had said kind words about him.
Professor Salam had deep love for Pakistan inspite of the fact that he was treated unfairly and indifferently by his own country. It became more and more difficult for him to come to Pakistan and this hurt him deeply. Now he has returned home finally, to rest in peace forever in the soil that he loved so much. May be in the years to come we will rise above our prejudices and own him and give him, after his death what we could not when he was alive.