Lahore. Prof Abdus Salam, the Nobel laureate who dominated the world of Physics for decades, breathed his last 14 years ago at 08:15(PST) on Thursday November 21, 1996 after a protracted illness. With his sad demise, not only Pakistan but also the entire third world lost a caring friend and a great benefactor.
Salam was born in Jhang on January 29, 1926 and started his career from this place. Imagine the state of science at the time in this part of the world. Salam describes how one of his science teachers explained to his class the fundamental forces in nature. One is gravity that everybody is familiar with. Second is electricity – which does not exist in Jhang, it exists only in Lahore. Third is the nuclear force and that exists only in Europe. That was the state of science education and the level of awareness in Jhang. And Salam starts his career from that humble background. But due to his determination, hard work and constant struggle, he overcomes his initial handicaps and soon becomes a celebrity in the world of physics. He goes to the best centres in the world, interacts with the grand masters of the time, rubs shoulders with giants like Dirac, Pauli, Heisenberg, Dyson and many others and eventually joins the elite club of Nobel laureates in 1979.
This is the story of a village boy from Jhang. An extraordinary story indeed and therefore must be told to every child in the third world. Salam’s story will inspire all young people with the idea that wherever they may come from in the world, they too can make careers in science or indeed in any other profession at present dominated by the rich countries.
Salam received his early education from Jhang – did his Matric and Intermediate from there. Right from his school days, he proved himself to be exceptionally smart in studies.
In 1942, at the age of 16, Salam moved to Government College Lahore where he was lucky to find a great teacher of Mathematics in Prof Chowla who later became one of the great number theorists of his time. Chowla did Mathematics all the time and nothing else. He had little interest outside the subject. The other teachers used to think he was crazy. He had the habit of ending his classes sometimes citing unsolved problems. So, while teaching cubic and quartic equations to Salam’s class, he posed a problem of Ramanujan (a legendary mathematician of the subcontinent) regarding four simultaneous equations in four variables. Salam spent three or four days on that and then came back to Chowla with the solution. Chowla sent Salam’s solution to the journal ‘Mathematics Student’ for publication. This was Salam’s first research paper that he published as a fourth-year college student.
In 1944, Salam took the BA examinations with Mathematics, English and Urdu as subjects. Once again, he broke all previous records by a large margin. He offered additional papers for an Honours degree in English and again created a new record. In 1946, he passed his MA examinations in Mathematics, again seeking the highest score. But this time, he could not break the previous record. His friend, Professor Bambah, who was senior to him by a year had appeared in the MA examination a year before and had created an all-time record by scoring 100 percent marks.
After doing his masters, Salam went to Cambridge University, UK, where he first did his BA Honours in Mathematics and Physics (topping in both), and then PhD in Theoretical Physics. He instantly became famous in the world of Physics with his PhD work.
Upon returning to Pakistan, he became a professor of Mathematics at Govt College Lahore and at the same time head of Mathematics at the Punjab University. After staying here from 1951 to 1954, he decided to go back to Cambridge where he was offered a lectureship at the age of 28. Three years later, in 1957, Salam became a full professor at Imperial College, London. He was the first Muslim to be elevated to a chair in the Anglo-Saxon Society.
People in Pakistan were not aware of what Salam had achieved in Britain. Mian Iftikharuddin broke the news. He was a known politician who owned an English daily, Pakistan Times. He happened to visit London in 1957(perhaps in connection with his son’s admission). He met Salam and was surprised to know that Salam was a full professor there. He couldn’t believe that and kept repeating, “Is it really true, is it really true?” He published Salam’s story in his newspaper and thus introduced Salam – the scientist of international fame – to the people of Pakistan.
At the age of 33, he became an FRS – Fellow of the Royal Society – London. Salam was the first Pakistani and the first Muslim to achieve that distinction. Now, the late Salimuzzaman Siddiqui, Prof Akhtar and, more recently, Prof Attaur Rehman are also Fellows of the Royal Society, London. At the age of 38, Salam became director of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), Trieste, Italy in 1964, the position at which he continued for 30 years.
For his excellent contributions to Physics, Salam received several prestigious awards and honours, including the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his work published in 1967 on the unification of two fundamental forces: the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force.
For his contributions towards peace and promotion of international science collaboration, he got the Atoms for Peace Medal and award. He became a fellow/member of more than 30 academies/societies of the world, was awarded DSc Honoris Causa by more than 40 universities of the world. There is a long list of his achievements, honours and awards.
The ICTP has preserved all his documents, awards, shields souvenirs and his personal collections of books. They have a separate room called the ‘Salam Room’ in the centre’s library.
The centre was renamed Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics on the occasion of his first death anniversary on the initiative of the Italian government. It is remarkable how the Italians have owned this great man and honoured him.
Besides his scientific work, the creation of ICTP is an important legacy of Salam, which was set up in 1964 to provide scientists from the third world with opportunities to conduct research and study new developments in Physics and Mathematics. The scope of activities has since been extended to include applied and related fields of science.
How does the centre work?
Each year, the centre organises about 40 schools, colleges, conferences and workshops on different subjects – elementary particle physics, cosmology, condensed matter physics, material science, mathematics, computational physics, geophysics, climatology, biophysics, medical physics and laser and plasma physics. Each year, about 4,000 scientists visit the ICTP. And since its establishment in 1964, more than 70,000 scientists from 170 countries have visited the centre. Out of the 70,000, 70 percent were from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe.
In short, this is the story of that village boy who started his career from Jhang, becomes a towering personality in the world and leaves behind two important legacies – his scientific work and creation of the ICTP.
The writer is a professor at the Salam Chair, Government College University Lahore.