The picture was taken on my visit to CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, Switzerland a couple of years ago. CERN is home to the world’s highest energy particle accelerator and has been the subject of considerable media attention as it collides particles travelling at very nearly the speed of light to recreate the very early moments of the Big Bang. Imminent scientific discoveries are expected and with them, a significant development in our understanding of the laws of nature.
Perhaps the last major breakthrough in the world of particle physics came in the 1960s when Dr Abdus Salam, a Pakistani physicist, proposed a mathematical model that unified two of the four fundamental forces in nature and described them as different aspects of a single force. The unification of two forces into a single theory, known as the electroweak theory, was a major stepping stone and earned Dr Abdus Salam, Sheldon Lee Glashow and Steven Weinberg the Nobel Prize in 1979.
Decades later, when studying particle physics at Oxford University, I came across Dr Salam’s name for the first time. I may not have fully appreciated the consequences of the theory he proposed and the reason why he was awarded the Nobel Prize, but I knew it was important and it gave me immense pride. I wanted to tell everyone and anyone that the Salam in the Glashow-Weinberg-Salam Theory was Pakistani. That Pakistan, a third-world country was capable of producing great scientists and contributing to the advancement of science on an international level. I knew this was a rare and special moment. It isn’t often that Pakistanis are awarded the Nobel Prize.
It was not until I started my PhD that I realised the significance of Dr Salam’s contribution. Since the theoretical model he postulated was central to my research, almost an entire chapter of my thesis is dedicated to it. Dr Salam’s electroweak theory predicted the existence of a set of particles called the W and Z bosons (subatomic particles). Indeed, the subsequent discovery of these particles in 1982 was a great triumph for the theory! I earned my PhD thesis by measuring with utmost precision the properties of the W bosons predicted by Dr Salam’s theory. In the course of communicating my research to people, it was impossible to omit his name. For a country that doesn’t have a long list of notable figures to celebrate, I found it surprising that Dr Salam was not a household name. For a man who put Pakistan on the world map and etched his country’s name into scientific history, he was astonishingly downplayed.
Hailing from a very mediocre background in a village near Jhang, Salam represented the average Pakistani. He attended an ordinary Urdu medium school but his intellectual ability was not ordinary. He completed his matriculation exam at the age of fourteen and went on to win a scholarship to study mathematics and physics at Cambridge University, a course he completed in just a year with a first class degree. Dr Salam returned to Pakistan in 1951 and became head of the mathematics department at the Punjab University. However, when his intention of setting up a research institute to encourage the pursuit of knowledge in his country did not look feasible, he returned to England. He channeled his disappointment in not being able to pursue his research career in Pakistan by setting up an International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy. The aim was to provide deserving young physicists from all over the world, in particular the developing nations, with an international scientific platform to meet and interact with one another and prevent them from being professionally isolated in their respective countries. Dr Salam wanted young scientists from developing countries to have opportunities to contribute to the forefront of research without becoming part of the brain drain. His devotion and commitment to the advancement of science in his homeland was exemplary, yet puzzling, given the treatment he received in his later years.
The growing religious intolerance in the country has served to shed light on a number of issues, particularly our ability as a country to shoot ourselves in the foot time and time again. However, no amount of name-calling or religious blacklisting can take away from the genius that was Dr Salam. He is regarded the world over as an outstanding physicist who played an instrumental role in furthering our understanding of the most fundamental area of science. Our inability to capitalise on his success or indeed give him his due regard represents a dismal failure. Had Dr Salam been born in another country, things may have been different.
As a young particle physicist or indeed as a scientist, I am all too conscious of the complete dearth of eminent role models to have emerged from Pakistan or the Muslim world at large and as such, I for one will wholeheartedly endorse the recognition and status bestowed on Dr Abdus Salam by the rest of the world; an honour he rightfully deserved, especially in the country to which he showed such zealous commitment.
Dr Sarah Alam Malik is a postdoctoral associate in Experimental Particle Physics. Her research interests can be found at http://www.sarahalammalik.com
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