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A hero is gone

by Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy

DAWN, Friday, 22 November 1996, Karachi, Pakistan 10 Rajab 1417

With the death of Prof Abdus Salam, the world has lost one of the mightiest intellectuals born on the subcontinent, and the most powerful and influential advocate of science for developing countries. To the world of physics he has left a legacy, known as the Unification Theory, that is now a benchmark against which future progress in physics will be measured. To the countries of the Third World, he has left behind a unique institution in Italy which invites and benefits over a thousand scientists each year.

I first saw Prof Salam in 1972 when he came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to give a talk at MIT. I was nearing the end of my masters degree in physics, but I understood nothing of his lecture and just sat in awed wonder. From the critical appreciation of the audience, who included some of the most well- known physicists at MIT and Harvard, I was however able to infer that this was no ordinary seminar and Salam was considered no ordinary visitor.

It was many years later, and after having had to learn a great deal more of physics, that I was able to understand Salam's incredibly deep and beautiful work of physics which earned him the Nobel Prize in 1979. It is hard to describe something so sophisticated in simple words but an analogy might help. More than a century ago, James Clark Maxwell had showed that magnetism and electric forces were actually the same thing, an achievement which led to the discovery of radio waves and much else.

In 1968, Salam showed that electromagnetism and the so-called "weak forces", which lead to light and heat being emitted from the sun and stars, were also actually just different aspects of a more fundamental "electroweak" force. His discovery, and prediction of certain particles completely unknown at that time, sparked a wave of interest all over the world and billion-dollar experiments were set up to check the predictions.

Salam was an intimidating personality. I can remember that the first time I asked him a physics question was after I had received my doctorate in nuclear physics in 1978. "Go look it up in a book", was his curt reply. I felt thoroughly chastened and small. It wasn't until 1984 that I approached him again. It was different this time, and we developed an understanding which grew deeper and firmer with each passing year. He asked me to co- author with him an article. I accepted instantly, feeling distinctly proud of honour.

In interacting with Salam, I could see that two strong passions governed his life. Physics research occupied him intensely; his mind would lock onto a problem making him oblivious to all else. He would engage only the most challenging and difficult problems of the field, problems that only the greatest can dare try. The elegance of his solutions were startling, as for example in his brilliant creation of what are called superfields. Without this powerful mathematical concept, physicists would have a very hard time to progress beyond a certain point in grappling with the basic laws of nature.

Salam's other passion was Pakistan. I have never been able to understand why he was so dedicated to the country of his birth given that he was virtually ostracised there, being an Ahmadi. I can remember that when the members of the physics department at Quaid-i-Azam University sought to invite him for a lecture after he received the Nobel Prize, the idea was vetoed when the student arm of a vociferous religio-political party threatened to use violence if he came to the campus. In spite of this and much more, Salam was never embittered and he never gave up trying to do whatever he could for his country.

Many people ask why Salam did not stay in Pakistan, choosing to stay as a professor at the Imperial College in London and the director of the Physics Centre in Italy. I think his decision was wise. His genius as a scientist would have been wasted had he stayed on in Pakistan; the loss to physics would have been certain and enormous. Moreover, he would have had little real chance to make a big difference because priorities in Pakistan have always been skewed heavily against the development of science. The most Salam could have achieved was a slight amelioration, if at all.

Salam is gone. There is no Pakistani, or for that matter any scientist from any Muslim country, who even remotely approaches him in stature. The loss is irreparable. Let us mourn.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 1996.
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