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Salam passes into history

by Munir Ahmed Khan
The News International, Sunday, November 24, 1996, Page 7, Opinion.

Very few Pakistanis have brought such honour and respect to their homeland as Prof. Salam. He was not only the most outstanding scientist of Pakistan but perhaps the greatest scientist produced by any Muslim country in this century. His health failed him when he reached the pinnacle of his achievement and could not enjoy the fruits of his life- long labours and ceaseless endeavours. He was working on new vistas in science which could have won him a second Nobel Prize.

Besides being a scientist of world renown, he was a visionary, a patriot, a servant of the third world and above all an unassuming human being. His success in extending the frontiers of science only deepened his humility and strengthened his commitment to his fellow countrymen. He leaves behind thousands of highly trained scientists in many countries of the Third World particularly in Pakistan who will carry forward his mission well into the 21st century. While he did so much for us and for the developing countries there is little that we can do to repay the debt we owe him.

I came to know Salam first as a contemporary in college in 1942 and later as the leader in a common struggle for science and technology in Pakistan, and above all as a friend. He was already a legend in his college days beating all records set by the Hindus in all university examinations. He not only excelled in his studies but achieved the rare distinction of being the chief editor of the Ravi and the president of the Government College Union at the same time. He left for Cambridge in 1947. Before he returned I had left for USA in 1951. But we remained in contact particularly after I joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1958.

One morning in September 1960, he came to my office in Vienna and said that he had a wonderful idea to set up a centre for theoretical physics under IAEA. It would cost very little – just pencil and paper and could be a meeting place for the scientists from East and West and break the isolation of physicists in the developing countries, who were losing touch with the world of science. When I asked for an appointment for him, Prof. Seligman, head of research department at IAEA asked, “Who is Professor Salam?” When told that Salam was the youngest Fellow of the Royal Society, his tone changed. Later Salam and Seligman became good friends, but poor Seligman could not live down his faux pas for the next thirty years.

He made his proposal for the establishment of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) at the general conference of the IAEA soon thereafter, but the idea met with strong resistance from the advanced countries. The IAEA scientific advisory committee which included Nobel laureate Rabi and Homi Bhaba unanimously opposed it. Privately Bhaba wanted the centre to be at Bombay and offered Salam to join him. Salam refused. He marshalled the support of the leading theoretical physicists from all over the world including Nobel laureate Hans Bethe who all respected him. Finally the Agency overruled its scientific advisory committee and approved the project. Salam wanted the centre to be established in Pakistan and requested Ayub Khan for an initial grant of a million dollars for buildings and facilities, but the Pakistan government rejected the idea. Reluctantly he agreed to go along with the offer from Trieste in Italy. He never gave up the idea of establishing a branch of the centre in Islamabad, because he always wanted to return to his own country and train young physicists. But his dream for a physics centre in Pakistan never came true.

His vision of what science could do for accelerating the economic and social development of the Third World went far beyond theoretical physics. He demonstrated this over the years by continuously expanding the role of ICTP from theoretical physics to cover computers, electronics, chemistry, energy, environment, bio-technology and genetic engineering. He not only held meetings in these areas at Trieste but founded allied institutes in some of these fields there. He awakened the developing countries to the crucial role that the science had to pay for their survival in the 21st century. He fired the imagination of many presidents and heads of government in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia to give greater priority to science, but alas his repeated pleas to Pakistani leadership did not have the same effect. He tried and tried but failed to persuade Pakistan to establish high technology centres, MIT type universities and other infrastructure for science in our country. This is a great misfortune and failure on the part of our policy makers and politicians who have not yet grasped the crucial importance of science for our future development and survival.

Salam has been our window to the world of science because the greatest physicists of our time have respected his opinion, and provided opportunities for scientist from the third world to get training in the top most research institutions and universities of the world. Besides his outstanding contributions to theoretical physics which earned him a Nobel Prize, his greatest legacy has been the building up of scientific manpower in the third world.

Prof. Salam made invaluable contributions to the development of science in Pakistan and remained as the Chief Scientific Advisor to the President and a member of the PAEC for 14 years. He became the mentor of the PAEC since its very inception. He helped select the site for Pinstech and support the acquisition of Kanupp. He encouraged the government to train scientists abroad and helped them obtain placement in key universities and laboratories through his personal contacts. He was responsible for the establishment of Suparco. He advised Ayub Khan to seek US help for waterlogging and salinity problems in Pakistan which led to the Revelle Mission. Together with him I had the privilege of preparing a proposal for the establishment of nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Pakistan in late 1960’s. Ayub Khan deferred the matter on economic grounds. Thus Pakistan lost a golden opportunity for acquiring this important technology when it was readily available to us without safeguards and at a nominal cost more than thirty years ago.

When he received the Nobel Prize in 1979, he was immediately invited by Indira Gandhi to visit India. He said that the first country he would visit should be Pakistan which he did as a state guest. He enjoyed tremendous respect not only among the scientists but heads of government and states in numerous countries and some of them became his personal friends. Once while visiting Beijing I was told that the Chinese Academy hosted a dinner in his honour which was to be attended by the prime minister. However breaking all protocol, the President of China also decided to attend the dinner just to honour Salam. The South Korean President once asked Salam how a South Korean scientist could get Nobel Prize.

My last meeting with Salam was only three months ago. His disease had taken its toll and he was unable to talk. Yet he understood what was said. I told him about the celebration held in Pakistan on his seventieth birthday. He kept staring at me. He had risen above praise. As I rose to leave he pressed my hand to express his feelings as if he wanted to thank everyone who had said kind words about him.

Professor Salam had deep love for Pakistan inspite of the fact that he was treated unfairly and indifferently by his own country. It became more and more difficult for him to come to Pakistan and this hurt him deeply. Now he has returned home finally, to rest in peace forever in the soil that he loved so much. May be in the years to come we will rise above our prejudices and own him and give him, after his death what we could not when he was alive.