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An interview with Dr. Abdus Salam

(New Scientist 26 August, 1976)

Professor Abdus Salam

is a brilliant theoretical physicist who was born of a Moslem family in what is now Pakistan. He shares his enormous intellectual energy between the pursuit of quarks and a passionate advocacy of third world needs. He talked about his life to Dr. Robert Walgate.

Abdul Salam in a lecture delivered last December to the students of the University of stockholm, spoke with controlled anger of the exploitation of the third world by the advanced nations. Piling fact upon fact, finally he burst out passionately with these lines of Omar Khayyam:


           "Ah love! could thou and I with fate conspire
            To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire
            Would not we shatter it to bits and then
            Remould it nearer to the heart's desire"

Salam physicist, FRS, Moslem born by the banks of the Chenab, passionate advocate for the third world has the heart of a poet and the mind of a scientist. He loves beauty and looks for it in his science. He is an excellent physicist concerned with deep pattern; he is also deeply compassionate man. These two threads intertwine through his life.

His work in particle physics has made many important contributions to his subject, not least the unification of two of the forces of nature - the weak and the electromagnetic - in a model which is receiving thorough experimental support. He commutes between Imperial College, London, and his creation, the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, a centre where third world scientist's can keep abreast of development in physics. At 50, Salam is full of energy, travelling all over the world to give lectures, make speeches and - often successfully - persuade politicians to realise visions. He fell in love with United Nations when he attended the first Atoms for Peace conference in 1955, and helped set up the UN Advisory Committee for Science and Technology, of which he was an active member from 1963 until last year. And for eight years he wasby personal invitation scientific adviser to President Ayub Khan of Pakistan.

He is direct, disarming, humorous deeply serious. He comes of a line of Rajput princelings converted to Islam about the year 1200. His forebears were scholars and physicians; but they were poor, Salam's Moslem upbringing gave him the mores of Islam, the moral code of the Koran, but it is relatively recently that he has come to a spiritual discovery of his religion. "Islam to me is a very personal thing." Salam says, "Every human being needs religion, as Jung has so firmly argued; this deeper religious feeling is one of the primary urges of man-kind." But Salam does not consign to enternal hell fire those outside the fold: "I would like you to become a Moslem, and share thee feelings I have but I wouldn't stick swords into you if you didn't!"

Salam does not believe that there is any conflict between his science and his religion. In physics, he has mostly been involved with symmetries; and "that may come from my Islamic heritage; for that is the way we consider the universe created by God, with ideas of beauty and symmetry and harmony, with regularity and without chaos. The Koran places a lot of emphasis on natural law. Thus Islam plays a large role in my view of science; we are trying to discover what the Lord thought; of course we miserably fail most of the time but sometimes there is great satisfaction in seeing a little bit of the truth." Salam also stresses that from 750-1200 AD science was almost totally Islamic, and that, "I am simply carrying that tradition on."

"My father had not taken scholarship as a profession, but he was very keen that I should succeed that way. He influenced me very strongly in that respect." The best jobs in Pakistan were civil service jobs; but Salam took a maths degree in Lahore, won a unique scholarship to Cambridge, and while there 'drifted into physics'.

"There was no question I was very fortunate. If I had not been awarded scholarship by the then Indian government it would have been totally impossible financially for me to come to Cambridge." The way Salam got the scholarship is to him "something of a miracle". During the Second World War, many Indian politicians wanted to help the British was effort. One of them collected a fund of about 15,000 pounds but the war ended, and he had to decide what to do with the money. He instituted five scholarships for foreign education.

Salam and four others were selected. Salam had taken the good care to apply to Cambridge simulataneously; and "the same day I got the scholarship, 3 September 1946, I also had a cable saying that an unexpected vacancy had come up at St John's college - admissions were usually done much earlier - and could I come up that October?" So Salam went to Cambridge, but his four colleagues who were to be offered places next year, never made it. The munificent politician died that year; his successor cancelled the scholarship scheme. "In the end all that effort to collect a War Fund, for buying munitions ended up in one thing alone: to get me to Cambridge!" Salam laughed. "Now one could call it a set of coincidences; but my father didn't believe this. He had desired and prayed for this and saw this - I think, rightly - as an answer to his prayers."

Salam emphasises the general moral. "Opportunities are so sporadic in the third world that the man who is absolutely tops may not even get a chance." There is everything against doing science as a profession; "it is poorly paid, very little endowed. You have to be highly motivated if you take it up; it carries no influence or status in a status conscious society."

In Cambridge Salam took the part II mathematical tripos and part II physics and came out a Wrangler - a first class degree. The Cambridge tradition was that those with firsts did experiment, while seconds and thirds did theory. "But for experimental work you need qualities I totally lack - patience, an ability to make things work - I knew I couldn't do it. Impossible. I just hadn't got the patience."

Salam found his way onto some problems in quantum electrodynamics, then a subject in the throes of birth (now the most accurate theory known).

"There were a few problems left" said his supervisor, "but all of those have been solved by Matthews". (Paul Matthews, now a professional colleague of Salam's at Imperial College and shortly to become Vice Chancellor of Bath University. He was then finishing as Cambridge research student). "So I went to Matthews and I said - have you got any crumb left?" Matthews gave him an important problem "for three months". If Salam hadn't solved it in that time Matthews would take it back. Salam solved it, and thereby made an important contribution to "re-normalising" (eliminating infinities from) meson theories. It took five months. That was his PhD!

Salam returned to what was now Pakistan and to his old university of the Punjab in Lahore as a professor. There was no tradition of doing any post-graduate work; there were no journals; Salam's salary was 700 pound a year and "I certainly couldn't put the journals on that". There was no possibility of attending any conferences. The nearest physcist to Salam was in Bombay and that was another country.

The head of Salam's institution told him that though he knew Salam had done some research he could "forget about it". He offered Salam a choice of three jobs; bursar, warden of a hall of residence; or president of the football club. "I chose the football club."

The whole tenor of society was geared against any continuation of research work in physics. Salam was faced with a tragic dilemma; "I had to make a choice; physics or Pakistan" Salam returned to Cambridge. There and subsequently at Imperial College, London (where he was appointed professor in 1957 to start the department of theoretical physics) Salam threw himslef passionately into physics, inventing the two component theory of the neutrino, working on particle symmetries and in particular SU (3), and gauge theories with the unification of weak and electromagnetic forces as a goal. But, in addition to this work, his burning concern, fired by his own unhappiness at having to leave his country was to find ways of making it possible for those like him, to continue working for their own communities while still having opportunities to remain first rate scientists. "I believe passionately that developing countries need scientists as good as the developed countries do, certainly in the university system. So in 1960 Salam conceived the idea of setting up an International Centre for Theoretical Physics, with funds from the international community, for example, the UN.

To such a centre, those working in the developing countries would come and with frequency to renew their contacts with physics while spending the bulk of their time teaching in thier own countries. The cnetre - rather than the developing country governments would pay for such visits. Salam, after meeting a lot of indifference in the first world, finally convinced the International Atomic Energy Agency to take up the idea of the centre. Italy, the poor man of Europe, came up with the most generous offer of site and running costs and ICTP was established in 1964 in Triests.

After an experience of running the Centre for 12 years there has been a shift in the disciplines, the Centre now emphsises, a shift away from fundamental physics' to physics which may be more relevant to the needs of the developing countries - for example physics of the condensed matter. "We do post PhD work, not with an eye to industrial laboratories - there are none in most of our countries - but the hope is that if you have teachers in the universities who have worked, for example, in solid state physics, then the next generation at least will have an orientation which is much more industrial.

"Thus we are stressing research in physics of solds, plasma physics, physics of oceans and the earth, applicable mathematics; physics of technology, of natural resources; together with physics on the frontier. As an exmaple, in solid state physics, professor John Ziman of Bristol, Norman March of Imperial College and stig Lundqvist from Sweden, Chiarotti from Italy, Garcia Molinere from Spain and their collegues have created (through the work they do at the Centre) a mini revolution in studies of this subject in the developing countries. This is evidenced in the degree of scientific maturity we now notice in the people coming to ICTP compared to 1964."

Salam emphasises that "It is a most important point to make that - even in a relatively large country like Pakistan - the active physics community numbers no more than 50 persons for a population of some 70 million people. And this is the total sample of men who are responsible fro all advanced teachings, for all norms and standards in physics, taught for engineering as well as for all advice to the government on matters concerning technology based on physics."

"Now considering that the active physics community is so small, one can argue whether the teachers we train should be high energy physicists or solid state physicists.

"Many people argue that we shouldn't do any fundamental science at all but concentrate on, say, applied physics of solar energy. Unfortunately things are not so simple. For solar energy research the need is there, but the money is not there, nor are the facilities.

"In the end it will be the U.S physicists, with the mutimillion dollar facilities available to them, who will produce a design that is the epitome of all designs for economic devices in the solar energy field.

"But this does not mean we should not have men trained at the highest possible level in solar energy work, men who know from inside what the current work in this discipline is. Perhaps the ideal would be men who commute between fundamentals of solid state physics as well as its application to say, solar energy devices. I do not believe this is impossible. To be multidisciplinary in physics is the cross those working in developing countries must be prepared to bear. Another is the philosophy we are trying to live up to at ICTP."

Salam's concern for the third world has not been confined to ICTP. He has struggled, from inside, with the educational, scientific, and development policies of Pakistan. But his first love has always been Physics, with a life that is a tangle of Physics and non-physics interests. "It is hard to switch; you find you are in the middle of something very exciting and then you must simply drop it."

Salam gave a current example. At present he is alone with a colleague, Jogesh Pati, in proposing that quarks can be free. It is the right psychological moment to develop the idea, for quark confinement is in theoretical difficulties. But with constant interruption of work through the demands on his time in running the Centre and keeping it alive, Salam bemoans the fact that he cannot spare enough time to develop his ideas.

Does Salam think he's got the balance about right? "Well sometimes I feel I'm being very foolish. I do what is necessary to achieve what I want to but often less than that." Salam is a man with tremendous enthusiasm - but he is one man without time, strung across two worlds and two problems. It is a loss to the world that he cannot have two lives.


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