In Memoriam: Dr. Abdus Salam

 “I hardly know another scientist who invokes the same deep admiration, from the widest possible scientific community, as does Salam.”

(K. R. Sreenivasan)

The two-bedroom derelict bungalow appears rundown and abandoned. Situated in the small shantytown of Jhang in Pakistan, the home that lies in disrepair bears a tired signpost on its exterior, which reads, inter alia, “National Monument.” The existence of a symbol of national heritage in its current state of neglect is made all the more paradoxical with the revelation that it is the birthplace of the nation’s most illustrious son – Dr. Abdus Salam.

From these humble beginnings in Jhang, Salam, who earned the accolade of being Pakistan’s first – and only – Noble Laureate, winning the Noble Prize in physics in 1979 for predicting the existence of the Higgs Boson (the so-called “God particle”) as part of his work on electro-weak unification of forces, remains largely ignored and marginalized in his motherland. The 17th anniversary of his passing on November 21st passed by unnoticed, a chilling reminder that the legacy of this great physicist in his home soil, in as much as his birthplace, continues to be eroded through the sands of time. Last July, when experiments undertaken in the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva tentatively confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson, a major scientific breakthrough hailed by the international community, Pakistan failed to pay even so much as lip service to its national prodigy, a news report by CNN lamenting, “… imagine a world where a merchant of death is rewarded while a scientific visionary is disowned and forgotten…”

Far from bowing its head in shame, Pakistan single-mindedly pursues a national policy of erasing Salam’s name from its textbooks. The so-called heresy that invites such blatant subjugation is Salam’s religious affiliation. Salam was a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a minority Muslim sect denounced as profane by mainstream Muslims. Ahmadis were constitutionally cast out of the fold of Islam in 1973 – the act making Pakistan the only country in the world to render a constitutional definition of who constitutes a “Muslim.”

Despite the national sting Salam was subjected to, he remained deeply patriotic, never renouncing his nationality and remaining devoted to advancing the cause of the destitute in Pakistan. Having returned from Cambridge in 1951 after writing his PhD in record time, Salam who had envisioned the formation of a research centre for physics in Pakistan, quickly realised that his aspirations were fanciful amid the prevailing drought of scientific advancement and a leaning propensity towards religiosity and schism. At Government College upon his return, he was given the choice of either becoming the warden of the college hostel, taking care of the college finances or looking after the college soccer team. Salam chose soccer. To add insult to injury, a wave of anti-Ahmadi riots broke out in 1953, with religious zealots demanding the ouster of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Sir Muhammad Zaffrullah Khan, (one of Pakistan’s most prominent Ahmadis who went on to serve as the President of the International Court of Justice in The Hague). The riots threatened to spread and rumours were heard of Salam’s murder in the College by a mob, forcing Salam to leave his homeland and take up a lectureship at Cambridge in 1954.

Salam’s vision for a research centre for physics was realised by the formation of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, which Salam founded in 1964 after a proposal by him to found such a centre in Pakistan was rejected by Ayub Khan’s Finance Minister, “as an underhand attempt to set up an international five-star hotel for the entertainment of the elite of the world scientific community!” The ICTP was equipped with a mandate to advance scientific expertise and skills in the developing world – a philosophy for which the ICTP remains a major driving force in the world today –Pakistan throwing away an invaluable opportunity to be its host to petty accusations.

The inspiration for the ICTP found root in Salam’s commitment to fostering scientific discovery in the Third World and his fervent desire to eradicate poverty and suffering. The widening wedge between the North and South deeply perplexed Salam, who remained an ardent advocate for this divide to be bridged by the South embracing a path towards scientific and technological development. He donated his entire Noble prize money worth 66,000 USD towards establishing a fund for Pakistani students of science to pursue higher studies abroad.

Notwithstanding his international reputation in physics, Salam’s passions were always guided and tempered by his profound sense of spirituality. He saw no dichotomy between religion and science, as, in an interview to the Manchester Guardian in 1989, Salam elucidated that the realms of religion occupied man’s inner world that could only be demystified by faith while those of science spread across man’s outer world that was guided by reason. In holding and expounding these views, Salam belonged to the minute class of scientists who were not atheists or agnostics. In a paper titled, “Renaissance of Sciences in Arab and Islamic Lands,” Salam quoting The Holy Qur’an wrote, “Thou seest not, in the creation of the All-Merciful an imperfection. Return thy gaze, seest thou any flaw. Then return thy gaze, again and again. Thy gaze, comes back to the dazzled aweary.”

Salam was therefore a man of God in as much as he was a man of science. His humility, his devotion to the cause of the poor and his deep interest in literature gave the scientific community a man that remains largely unsurpassed in disposition and intellect. While the world remembers this great man with deep fondness and respect, the country he loved so dearly continues to push his achievements to the periphery. His abandoned birthplace, regarded as a national monument but left deserted and untended to, echoes the legacy Salam earned in his beloved homeland even in death – the epitaph of his tombstone being defaced on the orders of a local magistrate. Rest in peace, Salam. In the words of Don Mclean, “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” Your country surely was not.

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