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The force we never applied fully

The News International, News on Friday, November 29, 1996. Section 4: Encore.

Dr Abdus Salam, who put Pakistan on the world scientific map, is no more. His death thousands of miles away from home serves as a sad reminder about the manner in which we treat our heroes. Dr Anis Alam profiles our greatest scientist ever.

Dr Abdus Salam, the greatest scientist that Pakistan has produced, died in Oxford in the early hours of November 20. He would have turned 71 next January. It is difficult for an average Pakistani engrossed in his daily concerns to comprehend the loss Pakistan has suffered. Dr Salam was the lone Pakistani star who shone brightly on the international scene. With his passing away there is no Pakistani scientist whose name and personality inspires similar respect and admiration. He brought fame and glory to Pakistan by researching into the mysteries of the basic building blocks and fundamental forces that bind together into a myriad of things, intricate and beautiful. His researches have been recognised the world over. The crowning glory to his work was the award of Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979. Besides the Nobel Prize, he won innumerable other honours for his work from the very beginning of his scientific career.

Dr Abdus Salam had not been well for the last ten years, but that did not prevent him from keeping an extremely busy schedule involving frequent air travel across continents. He directed the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), at Trieste, Italy, which plays host to over four thousand scientists every year. He also continued to discharge his duties as Professor of Theoretical Physics, at Imperial College, London. He was associated with numerous commissions, associations, committees and other learned bodies.

Three and half years ago, however, his illness forced him to retire from most of his official duties. He left ICTP and the Imperial College and retired to Oxford where he breathed his last.

We were not hospitable to our hero. His last public engagement in Lahore was nearly eight years ago when he delivered the Faiz Memorial lecture to a packed hall of admirers. Dr Salam has been known to the older generation of Pakistanis very well but the younger generation has not been exposed much to his genius.

He stands along with giants like the English Newton, who discovered the universal law of gravitation in the year 1687; the French, Coulomb, who discovered the law between electric charges in the year 1770; the Japanese Yukawa who discovered the law governing the strong force in 1935, and the Italian Fermi who discovered the weak nuclear force.

Dr Abdus Salam is one of those who successfully made the first advance towards achieving Einstein goal; unifying all forces of nature into a single one. Salam succeeded in unifying two of the four fundamental forces into one.

He was able to prove that the weak nuclear and the electromagnetic force are two manifestations of a single force, the electroweak force. Two American physicists Steven Weinberg and Sidney Glashow also arrived at the same conclusion independently. All three shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979.

The man born in the remote provincial Punjabi town of Jhang on 29th January 1926 had come a long way. But the promise was shown very early when Salam secured the top position in every examination which he sat for between the years 1938 to 1946.

In 1946 he proceeded on a scholarship to St. John’s College Cambridge and obtained a double first in mathematics and physics in just three years. He was then taken to do a doctorate in theoretical physics. Right in the first year he was awarded the prestigious Smith’s Prize for the most outstanding contribution to physics by a pre-doctoral student. He returned to Lahore to become the head of Mathematics Department at Punjab University in 1951, a post which he continued to occupy till 1954. In 1952 he was awarded the doctorate by the Cambridge University for his important work in the renormalisation theory. In later years as many as 36 universities from all over the globe conferred honorary doctorates on him.

In 1957 he was appointed the founder professor of theoretical physics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London at the young age of 31.

Dr Abdus Salam contributed to every major advance which made in the field of particle physics since 1950. He narrowly missed sharing the Nobel Prize in 1957 for his theory of parity violation in weak interaction.

His work on the symmetries in late 50s and early 60s also won him great fame and his PhD student Nee’man, in 1963, got the correct symmetry scheme followed by elementary particles.

In the mid-sixties, Dr Salam did the pioneering work on the unification of weak nuclear and the electromagnetic forces, which earned him the Noble Prize in 1979.

Dr Salam is one of the most honoured physicists. He was both awarded the Hopkins and Adam prizes in 1958. He was the first recipient of the Maxwell Medal. In 1971, he was awarded the Oppenheimer Medal and prize. In 1976 the London Institute of Physics awarded him the Gutherie Medal and prize. In 1979, UNESCO bestowed on him the Einstein Medal. In 1983 he was awarded the Lomonsove Gold Medal by the USSR Academy of Sciences. Salam was elected to practically every science academy of any standing all around the world.

Throughout his working life, Salam was driven by this desire to create a better world. It would have been far easier for him to keep busy with his scientific researches, accept professional chairs in prestigious seats of learning, make life comfortable for himself and his family. But being strongly aware of his social being, hence of his social responsibilities, he took the more hazardous road. All his life he gave as much importance to social concerns as to his scientific work. His life is a shining example of a person living a full professional life with all its responsibilities while fully alive to societal obligations.

Dr Salam realised very early that the problems of poverty, disease, malnutrition, sanitation, hygiene, and of general under-development faced by the developing countries including Pakistan cannot be solved unless these countries became literate, acquired scientific knowledge and used it for economic development. He also realised early that if he has to make an impact he will have to persuade the people and the governments in the developing world to understand the importance of science in the economic development. Once he became famous and began to be accorded respect and attention, he started using his considerable prestige and authority for the cause of education and science in the developing world.

In 1955 he was appointed Scientific Secretary to the First International Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, held in Geneva, Switzerland. Three years later he again acted in the same capacity to the Second Geneva Conference for the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.

The experience gained in these conferences reconfirmed his belief that the salvation of the developing countries lay in the acquisition of sciences. He therefore started his campaign to develop sciences in the developing countries. His early efforts bore fruit in Pakistan. He was instrumental in setting up the Atomic Energy Commission of Pakistan. As member of the Commission he was largely responsible for the training of scientists and engineers for the Commission for the next fifteen years.

In 1959 he was appointed Advisor to the Education Commission set up by the Pakistani government to suggest ways and means to overhaul the education system to meet the needs of the independent nation. The Commission strongly recommended strengthening of science and engineering education. It recommended that institutions be set up to train at least seven thousand technicians a year. Consequently, several engineering and technical educational institutions were created. Special colleges were opened for improved science education at post-school level.

Also in 1959 he was appointed member of the newly set up Scientific Commission. This Commission recommended the setting up of a number of new institutions to co-ordinate and organise scientific research in Pakistan.

Dr Salam was appointed Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of Pakistan in 1961. In this capacity he was largely responsible for creating a network of scientific bodies and institutions in Pakistan. He was successful in creating the basic infrastructure for science and scientific research in the country. By the middle of the fourth decade after independence Pakistan had a network of sixty organisations and two hundred experimental stations engaged in scientific research in such diverse fields as space, atomic energy, agriculture, medicine, water resources and irrigation.

Although Dr Salam was fairly successful in persuading the Pakistan government to create a rudimentary network of scientific institutions, he still felt that more could be done. In his opinion the size of the scientific community in Pakistan was far too small for self-sustaining growth. He helped individual Pakistani scientists to sustain themselves as practising scientists by various means. He was, however, convinced the necessity for an international centre where scientists from the developing world could interact with their colleagues from the developed scientific world. The idea, when first floated at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Commission in Geneva, did not find favour with the bureaucrats. But Salam’s persistence finally paid off. In 1964, an International Center for Theoretical Physics was finally established at Trieste, a coastal Italian town on the north Adriatic coast.

A very large number of scientists from the developing countries have been able to survive as working scientists only because of this centre. Dr Salam also set up the Third World Academy of Sciences for stimulating research in basic sciences.

Another great concern of his was world peace. Dr Salam always believed that with the development of knowledge of general and of sciences in particular it has become possible for all inhabitants of the planet Earth to enjoy a life of comfort, prosperity and peace.

There have been a few men of science born in what is now generally called the ‘third world’. Indian subcontinent has produced three Noble Laureates besides a fair number of scientists who have made an impact in sciences this century. Dr Salam is perhaps the only one who has contributed at the most fundamental level of our understanding of the basic physical forces which have given rise to our universe and which sustain it.

He was proud of his Pakistani origins. While keeping himself in the forefront of international scientific community, he continued to draw sustenance from his philosophical, cultural and religious roots. He was a deeply religiously man, who found no contradictions between his scientific investigations and his religious beliefs.

Dr Salam was associated with science and higher education in Pakistan from the very beginning. He was the Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of Pakistan from 1961 to 1974; founder Chairman of Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Committee (SUPARCO) 1961-64; member Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission from 1958 to 1974; member National Science Council 1963-1975; member board Pakistan Science Foundation 1973-1977.

He was awarded the Sitara-e-Pakistan and Pride of Performance in 1959. In 1979 he was awarded the highest civilian award, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz. However, since 1975 his services were not much utilised by Pakistani governments.

Dr Salam tried hard to persuade Pakistani governments to develop science and technology in the country, by developing her manpower potential. As this is the only path leading to prosperity and development. He campaigned for adequate allocations for education and science. But that was not to be. Pakistani governments have never spent more than two per cent of their gross national product on education. Their allocation for science has been even lesser. Hence after fifty years Salam’s vision for a developed Pakistan lies unrealised. What we have developed instead in intolerance, hatred and violence.

For Dr Salam differences between the developed world and the developing world is not of wealth but of science and technology. Former creates it, latter only consumes it. His own example, however, demonstrates that the ‘third world’ cannot only learn it, but also excel in it, and can even be its creator.

We need heroes and role models, in an age where long standing idols have toppled and giants have been found to have feet of clay. Where acknowledged leaders preach hatred, intolerance and violence in the name of religion. When truth gets trampled daily on the alter of expediency, we need models of compassion, integrity, truthfulness and humanity. Dr Abdus Salam’s was such a personality that Pakistani youth ought to emulate. He is no more with us. The best way to cherish his memory is to create an environment that is conducive for the development of scientific spirit and temper essential for the creation of many more Salams.