By Dr Aquila Islam
DAWN, Wednesday, December 4, 1996.
[Picture of Professor Salam receiving the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science at the Aligarh Muslim University, January 1981.]
The year was probably 1959. An international science conference was being held in Karachi. For the scientific community and the students of science, it was an opportunity of a lifetime. If memory serves me right, Prince Philips inaugurated that conference.
Many scientists from foreign lands, renowned and accomplished researchers, were there. I was then an MSc student, with nuclear physics my special paper. But my concepts in nuclear physics were nothing to be proud of. Memories of those memorable years are very vague. But proceedings of one particular afternoon are deeply imprinted on my mind – an enlightening lecture by Professor Abdus Salam at the Dow Medical College. It must have been an invited lecture – a part of the science conference. The auditorium was packed to capacity. The audience was all-attention and greatly excited.
The speaker was a very handsome clean shaved young man with fascinating mannerism and impressive deportment. He was talking about the intricacies of nuclear reactions and all present seemed to understand him though physicists or students of physics must certainly have been in small number. I still remember his pleasant smile when he quoted Dirac: ” neutrino is the real devil”. He must have achieved a stature and importance to be treated with such respect by the organisers of the conference. We, the students, were proud to note that a Pakistani was doing so well at Cambridge. Our general knowledge was very poor. Much later, I learned that he had been awarded the coveted Hopkins Prize and the Adams Prize by the Cambridge University a year earlier. And that he had broken academics records in all examination in the undivided subcontinent and had excelled at Cambridge.
He had shattered the idols of Hindu and British supremacy. At the young age of 33, he had become famous for his original research in theoretical physics. He was a trail blazer. For his scholastic work he got 19 awards from various countries of the world, the highest being the Nobel Prize awarded in 1979. He was a wonderful speaker and knew the art of stating very complex things in an extremely simple way.
Years later when I was a PhD student in North America and happened to visit a number of cities there, I felt very proud when told about the academic excellence and fascinating style of “your countryman Prof Salam”. At that time he was acclaimed as the greatest scientist of the Muslim World. I was not fortunate enough to be associated with him in either research or other activities. But in 1977 at the Pines Hotel, Nathiagali I had the opportunity to see him from close quarters. Being an experimental nuclear physicist I could hardly venture to indulge in a scientific discourse but I was very impressed by the humane side of his nature and his dignified, casual way with students. He published 273 original papers and numerous articles on the state of science in developing countries. His award money was usually donated to institutions in Pakistan.
In 1964, he founded the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) at Trieste, Italy. The ICTP served as a meeting place for scientists of the North and South. In the words of Nigel Calder, Professor Salam conceived the centre “as a meeting place where men from all countries could work alongside some of the most distinguished minds of physics… From Africa, Asia and Latin America, professors and students come to spend a few weeks or months at Trieste, where they can ‘plug’ in to the current excitement of physics, sample the latest ideas, and most important of all, meet informally with the world leaders in the subject…”
In 1983, Professor Salam founded the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS). Both TWAS and ICTP provided a rare opportunity to our physicists and scientists to be exposed to international scientific achievements and to collaborate with science giants. The greatness of Professor Abdus Salam lies not only in his academic achievements or his Nobel Prize but his never ending efforts for fostering the cause of science in developing countries. His dreams about Pakistan never came true. His own alma mater, University of Punjab, could not muster courage to claim his greatness! I share with Professor Salam the following lines of Omer Khayyam which he loved to recite:
Oh love! If thou and I with God conspired,
To change this sorry scheme of things entire,
Would not we shatter it to pieces,
And build it anew, nearer to our heart’s desire.