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Monday, 6 October 2008

The genius of Jhang: Dr Abdus Salam

(Zahida Hina, 23 Nov 2008, Express)


The genius of Jhang: Dr Abdus Salam

By Ahmad Faruqui (Daily Dawn)

EVERY October, the Nobel Academy announces the names of individuals whose genius has earned them its coveted prize.

The winners are awarded the prize by the King of Sweden in a formal ceremony. The prize in physics garners much attention, focusing as it does on the fundamental forces of nature.

So it was with great wonderment on Dec 10, 1979 that those who were gathered to witness the physics award saw a tall, bearded figure walk towards the stage. The very antithesis of western formalism, the man was draped in a long fully buttoned black suit with a closed upright collar, white baggy pants and white turban. Decorative shoes that could have come out of the Arabian nights completed the profile.

The man was Prof Abdus Salam. He had the honour of being the first scientist from the Muslim world to get the Nobel. His presence was a visible reminder of how far the young boy from the obscure town of Jhang on the banks of the Chenab had come.

Abdus Salam had shown evidence of brilliance at a young age by scoring the highest marks ever in a matriculation examination in Punjab. After studying at Government College, he went to Cambridge University (St John’s College), where he scored a double first in mathematics and physics and later obtained a doctorate. He would later teach at Government College, Imperial College (London) and the International Centre for Advanced Physics (Trieste, Italy).

Even though he had started out as an experimental physicist, he quickly turned into a theoretician, citing his lack of patience for accumulating data and working with “recalcitrant equipment”. His focus was on subatomic particles and the forces of attraction and repulsions that existed between them.

A century earlier, British scientist James Clerk Maxwell had shown that electricity and magnetism were two manifestations of a common electromagnetic force. Others had shown in the early part of the 20th century that a ‘weak’ nuclear force existed between subatomic particles and was responsible for phenomena such as beta-radioactive decay. This happens when a neutron in the nucleus spontaneously shoots off an electron as it turns itself into a proton, hence transmuting the element. However, the best available theory of weak force reactions by Enrico Fermi was known to be only valid at low energy levels.

In the 1960s, Abdus Salam, along with two Americans, put together a theory that described the weak force and electromagnetism as low-energy manifestations of a single ‘electroweak’ force. This theory agreed with all the observed data and behaved nicely at higher energy levels, unlike Fermi’s.

But there was a catch. It relied on the existence of several new particles that had never been seen in any prior experiment. One of these implied a set of ‘weak neutral current’ reactions, a brand new concept.

The Nobel was awarded to Abdus Salam and his co-researchers once the existence of the particles implied by their theory was confirmed by experimental scientists at CERN, the European test facility in Geneva. Prof Salam’s Nobel lecture, ‘Gauge unification of fundamental forces’ was a model of scientific eloquence (http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1979/salam-lecture.html).

Almost three decades later, his electroweak theory still stands, despite an extraordinary amount of testing. It has led to the development of the Standard Model in particle physics (quantum chromo-dynamics), which combines the electroweak theory with the ‘strong force’ theory.

However, from the days of Einstein onwards, no one has been able to integrate gravitation with the other three forces. Grand unification of the four fundamental forces remains an aspiration for future physicists. In science, theories are only interesting if they can be rejected. In his Nobel lecture, Prof Salam quoted from Einstein to affirm his belief in empirical testing: “Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it.”

One of the loose ends in the Standard Model is the existence of the Higgs boson, which is still to be observed. Physicists around the world are anticipating that once the multi-billion-dollar Large Hadron Collider at CERN that runs under the Franco-Swiss border is operational again, it will be able to test for the existence of the Higgs boson.

It is fitting that the life and work of Prof Salam have been celebrated in a new biography by Gordon Fraser, Cosmic Anger (Oxford, 2008). In the book, Abdus Salam emerges not just as a world-renowned scientist but as a humanist committed to the advancement of the developing world and as a humble man with a tremendous sense of humour.

During the Ayub era, he served as chief scientific adviser to the president and was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission. In those days he inspired countless students in Pakistan to pursue the physical sciences.

Unfortunately, serious policy differences between him and the country’s top leadership surfaced when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ascended to power. Bhutto was committed to bringing a nuclear weapons capability to Pakistan even if that meant, as he famously put it, that Pakistanis would have to eat grass for a thousand years. Prof Salam disagreed with Bhutto’s idea and felt it was ill-suited to a country as poor as Pakistan. Further difficulties arose with the passage of a law that excommunicated people of his faith from Islam.

A deeply religious man, Prof Salam was heartbroken. That year, with much anguish, he left the country for good.

He came back only once, at the behest of President Zia who wanted to recognise his achievements to the cause of science in Pakistan. He continued his work in the years that followed and travelled widely to compare notes with scientists around the world.

In 1996, at the age of 70, Prof Salam passed away in Oxford after a prolonged illness. But his legacy lives on. Many centres and professorships are named after him across the globe. His work continues to inspire new generations of graduate students to seek out the mysteries of particle physics.

But one would be hard pressed to find much evidence of his legacy in the land of his birth. That is a genuine tragedy since Pakistani science attained a high-water mark during his tenure that has yet to be surpassed.

The writer is the author of Musharraf’s Pakistan, Bush’s America and the Middle East.


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