By Fasi Malik
Twenty years ago one of the most brilliant minds of the world left us. Demise is perhaps the most certain thing in this world but some people stay always alive in the memories. Dr. Abdus Salam breathed his last on November 21, 1996 but in his life he achieved so much that many just dream of.
Dr. Salam was born in Jhang, a backward district of province Punjab. Unlike the thousands of kids born that day and then lost in the annals of history, he was a special kid who had to change the course of scientific history. He had to put his country in the line of scientifically burgeoning ones. He had to put himself in line with the few people who endeavor to fathom the mysteries of nature and try to understand it.
He was a scintillating star since the inception of his educational carrier as he was admitted directly to class four at the age of six because of his exceptional intelligence. As the result he didn’t disprove this decision of his teachers by securing 1st position in Middle class exam and then repeated it anew in matriculation, standing first in the whole province of Punjab. Once on streak of winning things there was no looking back. Salam topped the college in intermediate exam and then repeated it again at Govt. College Lahore. Salam’s father wanted him to be a Civil Servant but nature wanted to be demystified at his hands. In this duel of mortal and immortal the latter won and so Salam entered Cambridge in pursuit of being a Mathematical Physicist.
Salam had a scholarship for three years but he completed his mathematical Tripos in two years with a scholarship of one year to spare. His teacher, Fred Hoyle, advised him to do Tripos in physics in a single year. This was an intimidating task but Salam, habitual of tackling such feats, completed it with a first class. This was an unusual achievement which even surprised his teachers.
Salam was assigned to Nicholas Kemmer as a PhD student. Kemmer already had eight students and didn’t want to take more. He accepted Salam reluctantly and told him that all the problems in Quantum Field Theory (QFT), the area in which Salam worked, has been solved and that he could contact Paul Matthews (one of Kemmer’s PhD students) in case if any had left. Salam contacted Matthews to ask if he had any problem left. Matthews gave him a problem that he had not been able to solve – the problem of overlapping infinities in Meson theory also known as the Renormalization Problem in QFT. Matthews was going for summer vacations at that time so he made a covenant with Salam that if he failed to solve the problem till the time he returned from holidays he would take his problem back. Salam readily agreed. To Matthews’s utter surprise Salam tamed the problem within the period of six months as agreed. This work was enough for His PhD thesis but he couldn’t receive a PhD until 1951 according to the rules of Cavendish Laboratory. So he came back home sans the PhD.
On his return home, he was appointed the Head of the Department of Mathematics at Govt. College Lahore. Because of meagre staff, he was also given the duty to look after the College soccer team. He was the only working theoretical Physicist at that time in Pakistan and had nobody around to discuss scientific work with. Nonetheless he started the scientific work but his efforts resulted only in an article on superconductivity. He felt his research powers faltering but he was reluctant to leave Pakistan as he wanted to work for the people he belonged to but the anti-Ahmdiyya riots in 1953 in Punjab gave the final verdict as he left for Cambridge in 1954. This departure to Cambridge was no adieu to Pakistan but only an au revoir.
In 1957 Mian Iftikhar-ud-Din, a Pakistani Politician, visited United Kingdom and was surprised to see a young Pakistani holding a full chair at London University. Iftikhar-ud-Din- who owned a daily newspaper, Pakistan Times, with a very wide circulation, – published an article on Abdus Salam which led to the discovery of Abdus Salam to his fellow countrymen. As a result he was awarded a degree of D.Sc. by University of the Punjab and was appointed as the advisor to the education commission of Pakistan by President Ayub Khan. Salam started his work by formulating a massive economic growth program for Pakistan which would put Pakistan parallel to the western world within generation of two. His plan included promotion of science in Universities, medicine, public health, defense sciences and many more. He persuaded Govt. for more endowments in Universities for research purposes and to establish the ministry of science and technology. His endeavors resulted in Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH) and Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Committee (SUPARCO), of which he himself was the chairman. He, along with his collaborator Dr. Usmani, laid the foundations of Pakistan’s first Nuclear Power plant now known as KANNUP.
In 1968, Ayub Khan was ousted by his successor Yahya khan. Unfortunately Salam couldn’t build up the kind of relations he had with Ayub khan. The situation didn’t mitigate even after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto took charge from Yahya Khan. It was even worsened by the Bhutto’s National Assembly decree of the expulsion of Ahmdiyya Jamat. Salam resigned as the honorary advisor to the president of Pakistan as a protest. Nevertheless this was not the lone reason for resignation. As he belonged to the Ahmdiyya Jamat he was always a suspect to his colleagues. As a result his plans for scientific infrastructure was not only shunned but on occasions ridiculed on. For example, during Ayub’s era the Finance Minister rejected the Salam’s idea of building the ‘International Center for Theoretical Physics’ (ICTP) by the words that he’s planning to build a five star hotel for the elite of the scientific community.
Although Salam had already registered his name in the list of great scientists by showing his abilities in solving the renormalization problems his Nobel work was the unification of the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces. There are four fundamental forces – Electromagnetic, strong and weak nuclear forces and gravitational force – which drive our universe. Motivated by the elegance and symmetry of the universe scientists believe that all these forces can be combined into a single framework which explains everything. James Clerk Maxwell, based on the works of Faraday and Ampere, combined electric and magnetic forces into a single force known as electromagnetic force in the second half of the nineteenth century. Almost a century later Salam along with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow showed that electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces are the low energy manifestation of a single force now known as ‘electroweak force’. That is to say when universe was in its incipient stages and its temperature was high, electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces were not two separate entities but was a single force called electroweak force. But with the passage of time universe expanded and its temperature lowered, consequently electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces disentangled into two separate entities. Abdus Salam, Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow was awarded Noble prize for their work in 1979.
Salam’s proud creation, ICTP, is now situated in Italy in which young students from all over the world visit every year to enlighten their minds with scientific treasures. Had our politicians taken scientific plans of Dr. Salam seriously and not ridiculed them Pakistan would be in the line of nations leading in science and technology. He was awarded the Degrees of D.Sc. by more than forty Universities in the world. He is the only Noble Laureate in science Pakistan and the whole Muslim World have been able to produce till date.