Monday 18 November 2019

Professor Abdus Salam

A personal account
by Wasi Faruqi


My first encounter with Professor Abdus Salam was in the early 1950s in Lucknow - though I can only remember this vaguely. The occasion, which brought Salam to Lucknow was the Indian Science Congress (ISC), which took place in 1953. My father worked in the Department of Fisheries as a Senior Fisheries Biologist and was probably roped in to help with the organisation of the major conference. Professor Abdus Salam, who was, I think, still based in Lahore, was invited as a guest to the ISC where they got to know one another.

Six years later, Salam was part of a two-man panel (the other person was I H Usmani, Chairman, Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). interviewing for Ph D scholarships, some of which were funded by the British Council for studies in the UK. By this time Salam was already a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) at an incredibly young age and appointed as a Professor of Theoretical Physics at Imperial College, London.  Following my scholarship award the question arose about which University to approach for admission to a doctoral course. Contact was re-established with Salam by my father to help with admission to the Physics Department in the same institution as Salam. My father had completed his PhD in Zoology at Imperial College, London, in the pre-war period. As my mathematical training was inadequate, Salam suggested that the Experimental High Energy Group as more suitable as I did possess some experience in experimental physics from my MSc course in Government College, Lahore. Coincidentally Salam had been a student and Professor at Government College Lahore prior to leaving for Imperial College. I duly enrolled at Imperial College with Anthony Newth, a friend of Salams, who was, like Salam a Cambridge man.

Nobelprize Banquet in Stockholm 10 December 1979
As an aside, it is interesting to note that Salam was extremely helpful in training Pakistani students, many in his own group, with the noble aim of raising the general level of education in Pakistan. Salam was responsible for the higher education of a large number of Pakistani students, notably the twins Riazuddin and Fayyazuddin who later went on to set up their own groups elsewhere, including in Pakistan. I recall many interactions between the Experimentalists such as Anthony Newth and Salam, particularly when discussing the theoretical significance of some experimental results, or planning future experiments. During the period of my doctoral work, i.e. 1961-1964, Salam was in one of his most productive periods, probably similar to the 1950s when he narrowly missed the Nobel Prize for his work on Weak Interactions to Yang and Lee.  

However, in 1979 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for his contribution to the Electroweak Unification Theory. He also won numerous other awards, including the Copley Medal and the Royal Medal.

The passion Salam had for raising the awareness for science in developing countries was reflected in his quest for the development of an International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP). He correctly imagined that such a Centre could be potentially much larger in scope than individual university departments in his objectives. An expensive venture such as the ICTP was not easy to fund. However, with skill, persistence and tenacity Salam was able to convince UNESCO, the Italian Government, and many others to fund such a centre in Italy. The Centre, now known as the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), flourishes to this day in a scenic location in Trieste overlooking the Adriatic Sea and continues to attract many scientists from developing countries who would otherwise miss out on this rich experience. The Centre ran many postgraduate courses, which included a bi-annual Biophysics Lecture Program. Having switched to Structural Biology myself and working in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, I received an invitation to lecture on a couple of the Biophysics courses on the application of synchrotron radiation in biology. The course was during Summer with warm weather and Salam could be found occasionally sitting on the Veranda, post-lunch, teaching his young son. I joined him in these semi-leisurely occasions a few times but more often did not want to intrude on their privacy. Around this period, the Pakistani Government was going through an anti-Ahmadi phase and Salam was declared a non-Muslim. His reaction to this event was surprisingly mild and philosophical, suggesting that ‘we need to raise the level of education in our country’. I was extremely flattered in being included in the ‘we’ but was more surprised by the lack of bitterness he showed. Maybe you need to have true ‘greatness’ for such a reaction.