Dr. Abdus Salam – A Brief Story

Work and life of a Nobel Laureate physicist Dr. Abdus Salam are described here concisely. He contributed to the electroweak theory of forces very considerably.

Dr. Abdus Salam – A Brief StoryHe established International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) at Trieste, Italy, in 1964. Later, the ICTP was renamed as the Abdus Salam-ICTP.

Abdus Salam was an extraordinary personality. His intelligence and generosity impressed all those who approached him. He was also given unprecedented respect by scientific community of the whole world. He was born on January 29, 1926 in Jhang, Pakistan. At the age of 14, he secured the highest marks ever recorded in matriculation examination of the Punjab University. From that moment, Abdus Salam was a public figure.

Scholarships were to relieve his family of the cost of his further education, first at Government College, Lahore and later at Cambridge University, England. Abdus Salam did his Ph. D. in Theoretical Physics at Cambridge in 1951. He returned to Pakistan to teach mathematics at Government College, Lahore and became head of the department in 1952. Due to non-conducive scientific environment in Pakistan, he had to make a choice between Pakistan and physics. He left Pakistan for good physics and became a lecturer at Cambridge.

In September 1956, Abdus Salam was returning to Cambridge from a physics meeting in Seattle, US. Instead of taking scheduled flight, Abdus Salam boarded a US Air Force plane. US Air Force generously supported scientific research in European universities, and this support enabled physicists wishing to attend physics meetings in US. Flights were frequently full of families with noisy children but European physicists appreciated this generous travel opportunity. The overnight travel of Salam was uncomfortable and he could not sleep that night.

Salam started to think over the ideas about the possibility of parity violation in weak force given by Lee and Yang in the above mentioned physics conference to solve a puzzle of physics of that time. In the light of ideas of Lee and Yang, Salam found a solution to the puzzle in that uncomfortable night. He discussed his ideas with Rudolf Peierls, who had examined him in his Ph. D. examination, and Enrico Fermi, a well-known scientist.

But both rejected Salam’s ideas, so he did not publish his work. A few months later, Salam’s ideas were experimentally proved by Wu, Lederman and Telegdi. Then Fermi apologized by writing a letter to Salam in January 1957. Salam was really pushed a little back by the discouraging attitude of Peierls and Fermi. In the same year, Salam became professor of Theoretical Physics at Imperial College, London.

Salam continued his work on weak force and gave a unified model of electromagnetic and weak interactions in 1968. Salam invented the word “electroweak” for the unified electromagnetic and weak force. Weinberg, working independently, also gave a similar model. Work of Salam and Weinberg was based on initial work of Glashow. This is why the model is called Glashow-Weinberg-Salam model. After experimental proof of predictions of the model, Glashow, Weinberg and Salam were awarded 1979 Physics Nobel Prize.

Abdus Salam received the Nobel prize in physics in 1979 together with Glashow and Weinberg.

Scientific knowledge is a shared heritage of all mankind; East and west, South and North have all equally participated in its creation in the past, and, we hope, they will in the future. This joint endeavour in sciences is one of the unifying forces among the diverse people on this globe.”  — Abdus Salam

Salam also did much for the promotion and organization of scientific community in developing countries. He founded International Centre for Theoretical Physics, ICTP, at Trieste, Italy in 1964 (He wanted to setup this centre in Pakistan). Aims of ICTP are:

  1. to help the growth of advanced studies and research in physical and mathematical sciences, especially in developing countries;
  2. to provide an international forum for scientific contacts between scientists from all countries;
  3. to provide facilities to conduct original research to its visitors, associates and fellows principally from developing countries.

ICTP implements its aims through training courses, scientific meetings and providing experimental facilities in Italian laboratories.

Salam had served as Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of Pakistan (1961 – 1974). He had also been Member, UN Advisory Committee on Science and Technology (1964 – 1975) and Chairman, UN Panel and Foundation Committee for UN University (-1970 – 1973).

He got 18 awards in 10 countries for his contributions to physics including Nobel Prize in 1979 and Copley Medal of Royal Society in 1990. He also got 14 awards for contribution towards peace and scientific collaboration. He got 45 Doctor Honoris Causa awards in 28 countries. He published 275 papers on physics of elementary particles, several books and numerous articles on scientific and educational policies.

Salam loved Pakistan and Pakistanis throughout his life. In 1993, Salam was awarded an honourary degree of University of Petersburg, Russia. The rector of the university made a special visit to ICTP for awarding this degree.

After the ceremony, participants and dignitaries stood patiently in line to offer congratulations to Salam. One was a nervous young Pakistani. He bent towards Salam and said, “Sir, I am a student from Pakistan. We are proud of you.” Salam’s shoulders shook up and tears ran down his face.

Dr. Abdus Salam

This great figure of contemporary physics left us on November 21, 1996, at the age of seventy, in Oxford after a long illness. His death is a great loss for the physics community, especially, for the scientists of developing countries for whom he did a lot.

Author Email: rana@alumni.nus.edu.sg 

By Dr Mukhtar Ahmed Rana

Mukhtar does research on Instrumentation, Physics, and Environmental Science.