Abdus Salam won a Nobel Prize and helped lay the foundation for the recent possible discovery of the Higgs boson.
By Udayan Namboodiri for Khabar South Asia in New Delhi
Fearing the wrath of religious fundamentalists, Pakistan’s scientific community has been unable to properly acknowledge Nobel Prize winner Abdus Salam (1926-1996), whose theoretical work helped pave the way for the apparent discovery –announced earlier this month — of the Higgs boson.
“Our country is too caught up with sectarian and religious fundamentalism to celebrate something like this,” S.H. Rehman, a physicist with National University of Science and Technology, Pakistan’s premier government institution, told Khabar South Asia over email. “Dr Salam continues to enjoy wide respect in the scientific community where he belongs and that is all.”
Yet Salam deserves as much credit – if not more – than his Indian counterpart Satyendra Nath Bose, according to Rehman. “He was one of the five scientists who, working independently and sometimes jointly, discovered the boson which in 1964 took the name of British physicist Peter Higgs,” he said.
“It’s our national misfortune that we lost Dr Salam but it made no difference to either his career as a scientist or his patriotism for Pakistan.”
When the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced on July 4th that a particle consistent with the Higgs had been discovered, the Indian government responded with a press release highlighting the life and work of Bose, whose name is commemorated in the term “boson”.
The response in Lahore, by contrast, was silence.
Salam, who was born into a family of intellectuals, belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect, constituting a community of around 1 million in Pakistan. They have long been the target of intimidation by fundamentalists, who consider them heretical. In 1974, the Pakistani government adopted a constitutional amendment which stripped them of recognition as Muslims.
Prior to that, Ahmadiyya had enjoyed brighter prospects. The country’s first foreign minister, Chaudhry Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, belonged to the sect.
“It was a relatively liberal era which ended in the 1970s when politicians began forging links with religious fundamentalists,” Rehman said.
Salam was the scientific adviser to the president from 1960 to 1974, during which time he laid the foundations of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. He encouraged the training of a new generation of Pakistani scientists by giving them government funding to pursue higher studies and research in Western universities.
But the government’s 1974 move was more than he could tolerate. He left Pakistan, returning only for a brief visit five years later.
Several Pakistani scientists contacted by Khabar declined to comment on record about Salam, though all of them claimed to believe that Salam had been “wronged” by the Pakistani government.
In 1979, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Salam. He was the first Pakistani and the first Muslim so honoured.
“Dr Salam was not only persona non grata in Pakistan but also risked physical harm. When he visited the country in 1979, we at the Quaid-i-Azam University’s Physics Department invited him to deliver a lecture. But we were forced by the Jamaat-e-Islami to call it off. They threatened to ‘break his legs’ if he came,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, one of the young scientists from the 1960s who worked with Salam, in comments aired by the US public radio show The Takeaway.
Nevertheless, he added, Salam continued to assist Pakistani and Indian scientists through the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, which he founded.
After his death in Britain in 1996, Salam’s body was brought back to Pakistan for burial. “He is still regarded as the Father of Scientific Studies in Pakistan by the few who care for science in Pakistan,” Rehman said.
- cross-posted from Khabar South Asia