The Daily Star, Dhaka
Monday December 9, 1996
Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed writes from Princeton, USA
PROFESSOR Abdus Salam, the first Muslim to win a Nobel Prize for intellectual genius, passed away in Oxford, England, on Thursday, November 21, at the age of seventy. For the last few years, Professor Abdus Salam had been suffering from a disabling neurological disorder.
In a front page articles, The New York Times called Professor Abdus Salam a “Physics Trailblazer,” and his research on the “electroweak theory” as “one of the landmarks of 20th century science.” Professor Salam, a Pakistani physicist, helped reveal the underlying unity of two of the fundamental forces of nature.
Professor Salam shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics with two Americans, Professor Steven Weinberg (now of the University of Austin) and Professor Sheldon Glashow of Harvard University, for research all three conducted independently on one another.
Besides his trailblazing research, Professor Salam was a leader in international efforts to make physics accessible to students from developing countries. He was a founder of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, which has supported the students of Third World physicists, including several from Bangladesh, since its inception in 1964. He had remained an academic icon and a hero to a generation of Third World scientists, including the writer.
Research by Dr. Salam, Dr. Weinberg and Dr. Glashow culminated in equations demonstrating a fundamental relatinoship – or “symmetry” – between the electromagnetic force (which is transmitted by ordinary light and other forms of radiation) and the weak nuclear force, which operates within atomic nuclei and is responsible for certain types of radioactive decay. The four known forces of nature are the electromagnetic force, the weak and strong nuclear forces, and gravity.
For the first instant, after the universe was created by the Big Bang fireball some 15 billion years ago, physicists believe, the underlying symmetry of nature unified all the forces as one. However, as the conditions cooled, the symmetry was broken and the forces went their separate ways, as it were.
According to The New York Times, Dr. Salam, who was very well liked, and remembered for his kindly manners and luxuriant black beard and mustache, used to explain the concept of symmetry breaking by analogy with a dinner party, at which the guests are seated around a circular table, and a salad dish is placed between each pair of neighbours. The table setting is symmetrical until someone takes a salad dish from his or her left or right side. After that, the salad-dish symmetry is broken, and the other guests can no longer choose between left or right dishes. The broken symmetry of the weak force results in interactions that have a left-handed bias.
The three physicists were able to demonstrate that although weak and the electromagnetic forces seem completely unlike one another, they nevertheless share a hidden symmetry that can be demonstrated by an extremely difficult set of equations. Complicating matters, most of the solutions to these equations produce infinite values rendering the equations useless. A solution was found by developing mathematical tools to make the equations “renormalizable” that is, free of uselessly infinite solutions. Not as easy task.
On hearing about Professor Salam’s death, in an interview, Dr. Glashow recalled that in 1960 he presented a paper in Copenhagen that he believed would lead to “standard model” of particle physics that would be renormalizable. “This caused a dispute”, Dr. Glashow said, “and about a month later, Abdus Salam showed that I was all wet!”
By the end of the 1960s, all three scientists had reached generally similar conclusions. One was a prediction that the weak force must be transmitted by particles undiscovered up to then, knows as weak vector bosons. These hypothesized particles – the W-plus, W-minus and Z-zero particles, analogous to the photon particles that transmit electromagnetic radiation – became the objects of a sometimes bitter race between accelerator physicists.
In 1983, a group headed by Dr. Carlo Rubbia of Italy at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva found the W particles, and the next year they detected Z particles, which transmits what is known as the weak neutral current within atomic nuclei.
Acting with unprecedented haste, the Nobel committee awarded a physics prize to Dr. Rubbia and his collaborator, Dr. Simon van der Meer, in 1984. (Many physicists accused Dr. Rubbia of engaging in public relations work to win the prize!) Thus the “electroweak theory” forged by Dr. Salam, Dr. Weinberg and Dr. Glashow was confirmed.
Abdus Salam was born on January 29, 1926, at Jhang, a rural community now in Pakistan. His father was a school teacher, who encouraged Salam’s education. Salam’s prodigious intellect won him first class educational opportunities even as a child. At the age of 14, he entered the Government College at Lahore, having achieved the highest mark ever recorded for an entrance examination to the college.
He completed his undergraduate education at Punjab University and then moved to Cambridge University in England, which awarded him a doctorate in 1952. From 1951 to 1954, Dr. Salam served as the Professor of Mathematics at Government College and Punjab University in Lahore. He then moved back to England, where in 1957 he became a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London, where he remained for most of his life. It was there that he developed the mathematics of the “electroweak theory”.
Awarded an honourary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth as well as numerous scientific prizes, Dr. Salam spent much of his later life trying to promote scientific education in development countries including native Pakistan. In 1966, he recalled that while he worked in Lahore, he felt, “terribly isolated” by the lack of communication with his scientific peers and that above all, Third World scientists need contact with counterparts in developed countries. He dreamed of founding a “World University” to that end.
A frequent visitor to Dhaka, Professor Salam was an admirer of Professor Satyendranath Bose, Dhaka University’s legendary world-renowned theoretical physicists of the 1920, 1930s, and 1940s; of “Bose-Einstein statistics” and “Boson” fame. Some say, that Dr. Bose’s tenure at Dhaka is what inspired Dr. Salam to organize an international conference on low energy physics at Dhaka in 1967. That was the first time writer had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Salam in person.
The writer heard many stories about Dr. Salam in England. One is worth relating. One of Dr. Salam’s daughters sought his help in writing a school paper on modern physics. On reading the paper, the school teacher was furious! “But my father is a famous physicist”, the girl protested! “Tell your father, he knows nothing about modern physics!”, the teacher admonished.
Professor Abdus Salam is the first Muslim scientist to win the Nobel Prize, and was immensely proud of the fact. He was a devout Muslim in his personal life. Dr. Salam was unable to speak or move without a wheelchair in his last years. Dr. Salam married twice. He is survived by four children from his first marriage, and one child and his wife from his second marriage.
The writer is a Rhodes Scholar from Bangladesh, who currently lives in Princeton, New Jersy, USA.