Donning a dark sherwani and khusas, a white shalwar and a turban on his head, Dr Salam was described by one of his colleagues as an “oriental prince” as he received the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics for his theory of gauge unification of weak and electromagnetic interactions; essentially, laying the groundwork for what led to the Higgs boson breakthrough.
His work contributed to the ‘Standard Model’, which explains the interactions of elementary particles like protons and electrons, via the forces they exert on each other. This allowed Salam and his colleagues to identify all the properties (except the mass) of a new, electrically neutral
unstable particle, which later proved to be the Higgs boson, verifying the ‘Standard Model.’ The Higgs boson is a fundamental particle of the Higgs field, interactions with which give rise to mass in other fundamental particles!
Born in 1926, in the small town of Jhang, Punjab in what was then British India, now Pakistan, Dr Salam started his scientific journey. An exceptional student, he received a scholarship to a Government university in Lahore when he was just 15. From there, another scholarship landed him at St. John’s College, Cambridge. Being one of the few South Asian students on campus was not the only way he stood out. In 1950, he was awarded the University’s Smith’s prize for “the most outstanding pre-doctoral contribution to physics” and by 24, had completed his PhD in quantum electrodynamics.
He shared a deep connection with his homeland, Pakistan, and returned as a Professor of Mathematics to his alma mater at Government College, University of Punjab, and this is where he remained from 1951 to 1954. Dr Salam was part of the Ahmadi community in Pakistan, and the rise of sectarian violence targeting this group forced him to move back to Cambridge. In 1974, under then Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the Constitution was amended to classify the Ahmadi community as “non Muslims.” This wounded Salam deeply as he considered his faith to be an integral part of his scientific identity, and proudly self-identified as a Muslim physicist. In fact, he once wrote, “The Holy Quran enjoins us to reflect on the verities of Allah’s created laws of nature; however, that our generation has been privileged to glimpse a part of His design is a bounty and a grace for which I render thanks with a humble heart.” In addition, he had been actively involved as a Scientific Advisor to the government, under Mr. Bhutto in fact, and was instrumental in setting up a lot of the scientific infrastructure for the country, notably the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant in 1972 and the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO).
Despite this, Dr Salam had a deep love for people, not just of Pakistan, but also those in other developing nations who wanted to pursue the study of physics but could not find avenues to do so in their own countries. He was keenly aware that the funding for scientific endeavours seemed to be in the hands of Western countries and disagreed with many of his colleagues about the prudence of investing in those nations. To that end, he donated one-third of his Nobel Prize winnings and worked to collect more funds to create the ‘Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics’ in Italy. The goal of this centre was to allow physics students from developing nations to gather and learn from each other for 3 months before returning back to their home countries with the mandate of trying to expand their own scientific infrastructure.
A complicated man, he could be abrasive and short-tempered at times, but most remember him with a fondness for his certain eccentricities and a respect for not only his scientific work, but the time and effort he spent trying to create a more lasting infrastructure for more people, particularly from Pakistan, to pursue physics. He died at the age of 70 from a rare neurodegenerative condition called progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) but left behind his body of work and many pages of writings including his firm belief that, “scientific thought and its creation are the common and shared heritage of mankind.”
Author’s note: Having only a limited amount of space to capture the highlights of what was a very impactful life, I encourage the reader to watch the Netflix documentary ‘Salam: The First Nobel Laureate’. Taking 14 years to make, with the use of many primary resources (Pakistan Television Network Archives) and family interviews, it is a much more nuanced look into Dr Salam’s personal life, his work, and the socio-political environment that influenced both.
- Netflix documentary—Salam: The First ****** Nobel Laureate
- Why the Higgs Boson Matters by Steven Weinburg (2012), The New York Times
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