On a single day, thousands of births take place around the globe. But it is only once in a million times that the earth is blessed with the most gifted minds that become the revealers of the universe’s secrets. Dr. Abdus Salam was also one of those minds who worked tirelessly to reveal the hidden structures of universe using the tools of mathematics and physics.
Salam, born on January 29, 1926 in Jhang, was a theoretical physicist. Salam’s journey from Jhang to becoming one of the greatest minds of the 20th century started when he scored record breaking marks in his matriculation exams. In 1944, he completed his B.A in Mathematics and English from Government College University (GCU), Lahore by once again scoring jaw-dropping marks. His first research paper titled as “A Problem of Ramanujan” was published in a mathematics journal in 1943. To his luck and brilliance, he obtained a scholarship to attend St. John’s College at Cambridge University UK in 1946. As Salam said:
“If I had not gone that year, I wouldn’t have been able to go to Cambridge.”
Salam, an enthusiastic, vibrant young man, received a double first-class Honor in Mathematics and Physics from Cambridge at the age of 23. He was honored with the Smith Prize for the most outstanding pre-doctoral contribution to physics in 1950. In the same year, he solved an important problem related to Renormalization Theory. The problem was proposed by Yukawa, a Nobel laureate of 1949, and it concerned Yukawa’s prediction of the existence of mesons on the basis of theoretical work on nuclear forces. This problem got Salam fame in the world of theoretical physics.
He received his PhD from the famous Cavendish Laboratory at St. John’s College in 1952. He received international recognition for his PhD thesis that was based on the fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics. Salam also received one of the most prestigious awards at Cambridge, “The Adam’s Prize”.
After all these remarkable qualification and achievements, Dr. Salam chose to return to Pakistan. He dismissed an opportunity to spend a year at Princeton University and, instead took up the offer to head the Department of Mathematics at Government College University (GCU), Lahore in 1952. He suggested to offer courses in quantum mechanics, however his idea was not encouraged by the university. Because of intellectual isolation- without a library and colleagues to talk to on his subject, he went back to Cambridge as a lecturer in 1954. Salam said:
“A theoretical physicist has got to be able to talk, to discuss, to shout if needed.”
In 1957, he joined Imperial College London and later on was invited to set up a Theoretical Physics Department there. At the age of 33 he was elected as the youngest member of Royal Science Society of London. In the same year, he was given a fellowship to Princeton University. There he met Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of Manhattan Project, and both of them worked together in developing the foundations of quantum electrodynamics.
Salam would have gotten his first Nobel Prize in 1957 for his unpublished two component theory of neutrino. In his theory he showed that violation of the principle of symmetry in Physics could be explained by postulating a unique property of elementary particles like neutrino. But the eminent physicist, Wolfgang Pauli discouraged Salam to publish this theory and a year later two American-Chinese physicists announced the same discovery for which they received Nobel Prize.
By the early 60’s, Salam was one of the world’s top particle physicist. He crossed the barriers of scientific knowledge to open new horizons of understanding in theoretical physics. Salam was honored with the Nobel Prize in 1979 for developing the Standard Model for Physics and for Unification Theory, along with Weinberg and Glashow.
In his unification theory, he unified electromagnetic force with weak nuclear force. His theory predicted the conditions under which Higgs Boson particle was created at the time of Big Bang and the theory was validated in 2012 in the largest particle accelerator laboratory at CERN. The Big Bang theory is what marks our understanding of the universe but very few people in Pakistan are aware that it was one of us who helped postulate this theory.
He spread the seed of knowledge wherever he went and built institutions that, to this day, are training scientists from all across the world to contribute in the field of science. In 1964, Salam succeeded in setting up the International Center for Theoretical Physicist (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, for young scientists in developing world, after attempts to establish such an institution in Pakistan failed. One of its notable Pakistani alumni includes Tasneem Zehra Husain.
“The notion of a Centre that should cater particularly to the needs of physicists from developing countries had lived with me from 1954, when I was forced to leave my own country because I realized that if I stayed there much longer, I would have to leave physics, through sheer intellectual isolation.”
Salam firmly believed that for the development of Pakistan, a greater investment in science and research is required. His efforts in establishing educational framework in Pakistan were remarkable. He contributed to the establishment of Physics Department of Quaid-e-Azam University, Pakistan. He played a key role in establishing Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and space research agencies Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO). He began a program for scientists by setting up high quality research institution PINSTECH and also set up the first nuclear power plant (KANUPP) in Karachi.
He had a deep attachment to his homeland. With his Nobel Prize money, he supported needy science students throughout Pakistan. The money was also used to support The Abdus Salam Prize, an annually awarded prize for scientific research and to purchase scientific equipment for Pakistani colleges. He organized a framework for 500 students to be sent abroad for higher education in science. The establishment of Third World Academy of Science (TWAS) was also his significant contribution to the development of science in third world countries.
Abdus Salam died at the age of 70, on November 21, 1996 in Oxford, UK. In his lifetime, he received more than 40 Honorary Doctorates from the leading educational institutes and meritorious awards from 50 countries. Abdus Salam took pride in himself as a Pakistani to the end of his days. His love and pride for his country, culture and religion was evident from his vigorous attempts towards science development in Pakistan, belief in unity and from his traditional attire during the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, 1979.