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the Message Continues i/64   -   Newsletterfor  December 2006

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Dr. Abdus Salam "The mystic scientist"
by Zainab Mahmood



The story of the peasant from Jhang who became one of the finest scientists the world has known

In 1925, a peasant from Jhang had a prophetic dream: in response to his prayers, an infant was put in his lap; he inquired after his name and was told it was Abdus Salam. On Friday, January 29, 1926, a son was born to him and he duly named him Abdus Salam. A few years later, in another dream he saw Salam rapidly climbing a tall tree. When he cautioned him, Salam replied, "Father don't worry I know what I'm doing," and continued to climb until he was lost from sight. These visions were perhaps an indication of the extraordinary life that the child was destined to lead.

Salam's powers of comprehension astonished his parents. As a toddler when his mother narrated bedtime stories, he retained every word and whenever she repeated a story he interrupted by saying "I already know it". At six he was admitted straight into class four. At just 12 he sat for his matriculation exam and stood first in Punjab University, breaking all previous records.

Salam pursued a bachelor's degree at Government College, Lahore, where he became editor of Ravi the college magazine, and president of the student's union and debating society. In his fourth year during a lecture on Srinivas Ramanujan's mathematical equations, Salam worked out simpler and shorter solutions, which had defied many professors. He went on to set new records in BA and MA in Punjab University, some of which still stand. Salam applied for an undergraduate programme in the mathematics Tripos at Cambridge. His father was unable to finance his studies abroad. Fortunately Sir Chotoo Ram (the revenue minister of the Punjab), himself the son of a peasant, arranged that funds collected for the war effort be used to provide scholarships for bright sons of peasants.

At Cambridge, Salam realised that his view of the world was fairly limited; referring to Rumi's poem, he called himself "the frog from the well". There he read voraciously about Islamic mysticism and philosophy, political and religious history, social sciences and the achievements of Muslim scholars, Sufis and scientists. This knowledge not only helped him achieve success in his chosen field, but also made him a well-rounded human being with a strong sense of history and spirituality. After completing his mathematics tripos degree early (with a double first, earning him the prestigious title of "wrangler"), he completed a three year physics degree in one year. Due to the exceptional standard of his theoretical papers, the examiners did not even ask for his practical results, and simply awarded him a first class degree. One of his professors, Sir Fred Hail, said about him: "I found it less of a strain to tackle hard problems with Salam than to be asked easier things by other chaps.With them you had to roll two stones up the hill, one was the problem, the second making them understand, with Salam there was one stone, and he would be doing a fair amount of the pushing."

Salam completed his PhD in theoretical physics at Cambridge in 1952. Despite being offered a fellowship he returned to Pakistan to teach at Government College. Professor Kemmer, his research supervisor from Cambridge, eventually persuaded him to return to lecture at Cambridge: "I know very well that his strong sense of duty to his country is making it hard for him to decide to accept the post offered. If he does I feel in a few years he will become one of those from whom advanced students from all over the world would learn and he would be capable of establishing his own school of theoretical physics." This proved prophetic.

In 1957 Salam became Imperial College London's youngest professor ever. Here Salam, who had started out as a simple peasant, not even seeing an electric light bulb until he was sixteen, interacted with some of the greatest minds of his generation such as Bertrand Russell, Einstein, Openheimer, and Wolfgang Pauli. During one discussion Russell stated how he was vehemently opposed to God's existence; Salam responded by saying: "without belief in God man is prone to many basic defects and history shows that those who do believe in God are able to sacrifice more and do better for the mankind in comparison to non-believers." In his first meeting with Einstein, they discussed religion, and Dr Salam explained the Islamic concept of tauheed . They ultimately developed a close friendship.

Dr Salam's spirituality and interest in Sufism distinguished him from most other great scientists. He began his first ever lecture at Imperial College by reciting a Quranic verse. His student Professor Duff recalls that his lectures were mesmerising: "there was always an element of eastern mysticism in his ideas that left you wondering how to fathom his genius." Dr Salam would explain his scientific endeavours were inspired by the concepts of Ptolemy, Bruno and Galileo who dared to question and discover the mechanisms of the universe. He pointed out that a scientist has many facets, such as that of a Sufi, an artist and explorer, and he relies on such traditions to advance his scientific knowledge.

As advisor to General Ayub Khan, Dr Salam was instrumental in the formation of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). Dr Ishfaq (President, PAEC 1998) recalls, "Dr Salam was responsible for sending about 500 physicists, mathematicians and scientists from Pakistan, for PhDs to the best institutions in UK and USA". He worked tirelessly towards establishing a scientific platform in Pakistan. He spoke on problems afflicting Pakistan and suggested practical guidelines on how to tackle poverty and illiteracy in the third world at the All Pakistan Science Conference in Dhaka (1961). He urged citizens and the government to pay more attention to the scientific sector. He said poverty could be eradicated in one generation in Pakistan if the entire country made a firm commitment and he quoted from the Quran for inspiration: "God does not change the condition of a nation until it does not make an effort to change itself."

He was a force behind the establishment of PINSTECH a centre for nuclear research, near Islamabad and SUPARCO in Karachi. He worked hard to find a solution for water-logging and salinity, which was a big problem for Pakistan's agriculture. He wrote several papers on this subject, which were presented in the US House of Representatives. On his request, the American president John F Kennedy sent a team of experts to Pakistani who were able to save millions of acres of land.

Dr Salam worked day and night towards the establishment of an institute for physics. Yet, as is now well-known, Pakistan was uninterested: the then finance minister, Mohammed Shoaib, advised Ayub Khan that "Dr Salam wants to build a 5-star hotel for scientists". Defeated, Abdus Salam approached several European countries instead. Finally the centre, the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) was established in Italy in 1964. He served as director there for 30 years, and so a bridge of science was created between the developed and third world countries. As the science writer Robert Walgate said about Dr Salam, "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."

In 1979, Dr Salam won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his research on the grand unification theory. This theory was inspired by his spiritual belief that all forces emanate from a single source. The hours he spent conducting scientific research at his home, would be against the backdrop of recorded naats and talawat recitation of the Quran. At the award-ceremony he arrived wearing his national dress sherwani, khussa and pagri and began his acceptance speech with a recitation from the Quran: "No incongruity will you see in the creation of God. Then look again, do you see any flaw? Look again and again and your sight will return confused and fatigued having seen no incongruity."

After winning the Nobel Prize, Salam visited his homeland. On one occasion he was en route with Dr Usmani and requested they drive to Government College. Dr Usmani told him that as it was during the vacation no one would be around. Dr Salam replied, "The person I want to meet will certainly be there." As the car approached a group of workers in the college, Dr Salam got out, shook hands and embraced one of them. Surprised, Dr Usmani asked him about the identity of this man, to which Dr Salam replied, "This gentleman is Saida, a mess servant at New Hostel, who used to lock my hostel room from outside during the exams, and gave me food and supplies through the window."

Dr Salam never forgot all those people who had, in some way, aided him throughout his life. When he was lecturer at Cambridge, he regularly sent money to his retired and impoverished teachers in Jhang. He held all his teachers in the highest of esteem and when he made an official visit to India, he insisted that all his Hindu and Sikh teachers who had migrated to India should be invited to all functions arranged in his honour. Dr Salam won 274 awards, degrees and prizes during his life, most of which carried substantial cash rewards. He used all his prize money to create a scholarship fund for deserving students as well as to aid impoverished people. While visiting India he was treated as a hero. Indira Gandhi was so in awe of him that she refused to sit at the same level as Dr Salam, instead sitting beside him on the floor. When students in India asked what changes the Nobel had brought his life, he replied: "the biggest change is that now I can meet all those people that I wanted
 to and with their help and God's kindness I am able to help many aspiring scientists from the third world. The Nobel prize does not mean anything more to me."

Once a journalist asked him how he felt that because of his extraordinary achievements, his small village Jhang, previously famous for the Heer folktale, was now known as the home of one of the greatest scientific minds of this century. Salam answered with extreme humility and wit, saying, "there are over 325 Nobel laureates in the world, but there is only one Heer."

In 1988 he was invited to speak at the Faiz Memorial Lecture in Lahore. The contents of his speech elucidate the extent of his humility and diffidence. He confessed that he felt he was far a far lesser man than the gifted poet Faiz, who had lived in a world of love and beauty which enriched all around him, while he (Salam) was an inhabitant of the dry and colourless world of atoms. He remarked that one-eighth of the Quran summons all believers to think, to question and to harness the forces of nature for the benefit of mankind. He felt Faiz was an extraordinary man who took on this challenge, as should all believers. He showed how spiritual poetry and science were routes to the same destination and how the quest to unfold God's mysteries, fuelled both the scientist and the poet. Sadly, he said, another similarity which drew him and Faiz together was that they were considered persona non grata by their own country.

In the latter part of his life, which he mostly spent in England, when he was asked why he was hesitant to come to Pakistan, he gave an honest response by saying that it was Pakistan that was hesitant to receive him. Dr Salam was offered citizenship from several countries, including Jordan and Kuwait, which even offered to nominate him as director-general of UNESCO. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to him and said "come on your terms and we will accept". Even when the British government informed him that the Queen wished to grant him a knighthood he politely declined as the title of KBE can only be granted to British nationals. Dr Salam remained a citizen of Pakistan and selflessly fought many battles for his country.

Munir Ahmed Khan, formerly chairman of the PAEC, aptly eulogised Dr Salam in November 1997, saying: "we Pakistanis may chose to ignore Dr Salam but the world at large will always remember him." In 1979, Jamiluddin Aali, a renowned journalist, wrote a newspaper article once titled "Two failed heroes of the east are celebrated universally", referring to Mother Teresa and Dr Salam. Mother Teresa is now on the fast track to sainthood. While memories of Dr Abdus Salam are honored by many around the world, in his own country they are even today buried under prejudice and disregard, erased from textbooks and mainstream publications. The loss is surely ours.                   

 

 

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