Dr Abdus Salam - The ’Mystic’ scientist

Zainab Mahmood November 26, 2004

Tags: salam , scientist , science

(Jan 1926 – Nov 1996)

In 1925, a peasant belonging to Jhang had a prophetic dream. In response to his prayers, an infant was put in his lap. He inquired after his name and was told it was “”. On 29th January 1926 on a Friday, a son was born to him and he duly
named him, . A few years later, in another dream he saw Salam rapidly climbing a tall tree. When he cautioned him, Salam replied “father don’t worry I know what I’m doing” and he continued to climb till he was lost from sight. These visions were a clear indication of the extraordinary life that the child was destined to lead.

Since the early years, his power of comprehension, astonished his parents. As a toddler when his mother narrated bedtime stories, he retained every word and whenever she repeated a story, he interrupted by saying “I already know it”.

He joined primary school in Jhang at age 6 where the Headmaster gave him a test and was so impressed by the precocious child that he admitted him straight to class four. Salam had no problem in catching up with students much older than him. At the tender age of 12 he sat for his Matriculation exam and stood first in Punjab University breaking all previous records, probably the first muslim to achieve this honour.

Before his intermediate examination, his father met the principal of the college to discuss his son’s approaching exams. The principal, perused Salam’s english essays and remarked, “Fortunately or unfortunately the boy has so great a retentive power that it is difficult to distinguish whether the used is his own or borrowed”. Right from his childhood Salam offered all his prayers and recited the Holy Quran regularly. During his school years in Jhang, every Sunday, he visited the mosque and swept the floors, dusted the prayer mats and filled up the water tank for the namazees.
Salam then pursued a Bachelor’s degree at College where he took part in several extracurricular activities and became editor of college magazine (Ravi), President of Student’s Union and debating society. In his fourth year during a lecture on Srinivas Ramanujan’s mathematical equations, Salam worked out simpler and shorter solutions which had defied many a professors for a long time. He went on to set new records in BA and MA in Punjab University, some of which still stand. Although his wanted him to join ICS, applied for an undergraduate program in Mathematics Tripos at Cambridge, instead of sitting for the ICS. This was a turning point in his life.

As his father was unable to finance his studies abroad, Salam prayed fervently for a soloution. As would have it, Sir Chotoo Ram (revenue minister Punjab), who himself was a son of a peasant, arranged to use the funds collected for the effort, as scholarships for bright sons of peasants to study abroad. Salam applied for this scholarship. His admission to Cambridge was no less a miracle as admissions are made a year in advance and all places were filled up. Salam applied only a few months before classes were to start and as luck would have it an Indian student withdrew from his seat at St Johns College. A highly improbable set of circumstances followed and eventually Salam not only gained admission but also a scholarship. Salam reached Cambridge, just in time for the term to start, carrying a steel trunk full of books and few personal effects.

At Cambridge, Salam realized that his overview of the world was fairly limited, and he called himself “the frog from the well” (referring to Rumi’s poem). For the next six months he spent all spare time in the library, voraciously reading about Islamic and philosophy, political and religious history, social sciences and the achievements of Muslim scholars, Sufis and scientists. This knowledge not only helped him achieve success in his chosen field but also made him a well versed human being with a strong sense of history and . Inspired by Professor Derek (Nobel Laureate) at Cambridge, Salam decided to read Physics after completing his Mathematics Tripos degree early (with a double first, which earned him the prestigious title of “Wrangler”). He then proceeded to complete a 3 year Physics degree in one year. Due to the exceptional standard of his theoretical papers, the examiners did not even ask for his practical results and awarded him a first class degree. One of his highly acclaimed professors Sir Fred Hail said about him, “I found it less of a strain to tackle hard problems with Salam than to be asked easier things by other chaps. With them you had to roll two stones up the hill, one was the problem, the second making them understand, with Salam there was one stone, and he would be doing a fair amount of the pushing”.

He then began his research in Theoretical Physics at Cambridge (1949-52) and after receiving the PhD, he was offered a fellowship at Trinity College, which he declined in favour of returning to . In 1953 while he was at College and coaching the football team and arranging hot milk for players, in Chauburji grounds, when he was offered a lectureship at St John’s, Cambridge. He was hesitant to accept and so Professor Kemmer, his research supervisor from Cambridge, tried to persuade him, “I know very well that his (Salam’s) strong sense of duty to his country is making it hard for him to decide to accept the post offered. If he does I feel in a few years he will become one of those from whom advanced students from all over the world would learn from and he would be capable of establishing his own school of theoretical physics”. Salam reluctantly accepted as there was no opportunity for research work in .

In 1957 he was offered a chair at Imperial College London as Professor of Theoretical Physics. It is remarkable that the simple peasant boy, who had not seen an electric light bulb till he came to at age sixteen, went on to become the youngest professor in the history of Imperial College, at age 30.

While at Imperial, he had the privilege of interacting with great minds, such as Bertrand Russell, Einstein, Openheimer, and Wolfgang Pauli to name a few. During a discussion, once, Russell was discussing how he was vehemently opposed to Gods existence, to which Salam responded by saying, “without belief in man is prone to many basic defects and history shows that those who do believe in are able to sacrifice more and do better for the mankind in comparison to non-believers”.

In his first meeting with Einstein, their whole discussion was about and Dr Salam explained to him the Islamic concept of Tauheed. Einstein did not dismiss Salam as a religious bigot and they developed a close friendship. Salam was able to hold his own not only in the world of , but he also commanded respect from colleagues and students due to his enormous bank of knowledge on all other fields of study.

Dr Salam may have been acknowledged for his scientific brilliance but his lesser known Sufi nature and is what distinguished him from other great achievers. He began his first ever lecture at Imperial College by recitation of a quranic verse that he would continue to quote at numerous important occasions in his life. His student Professor Duff recalls that his mesmerising lectures were so unique that the students would find themselves entranced by the depth of Dr Salam’s knowledge and expression “there was always an element of eastern in his ideas that left you wondering how to fathom his genius”. Dr Salam would explain his scientific endeavours were inspired by mythological concepts of Ptolemy, Bruno and Galileo who dared to question and discover the mechanisms of the universe. He pointed out that a scientist has many facets, such as that of a Sufi, an artist and explorer, and he relies on such traditions to advance his scientific knowledge.
While at Imperial he continued to work towards the advancement of sciences and theoretical physics in . As advisor to Ayub khan, Dr Salam was instrumental in the formation of Atomic Commission (PAEC). Dr Ishfaq (President, PAEC 1998) recalls, “Dr Salam was responsible for sending about 500 physicists, mathematicians and scientists from , for PhD’s to the best institutions in UK and ”. One of his students, Professor Dr. Murtaza, Dean of Natural Sciences Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad, admits that he takes immense pride in the fact that he was a student of Dr Salam at Imperial College and that he obtained a PhD under his patronage. He recalls that in Imperial College when Dr Salam was to deliver a lecture, the hall would be packed and although the subject was Particle Physics, his manner and eloquence was such as if he was talking about . When he finished his lectures, listeners would often burst into spontaneous applause and give him a standing ovation.

Dr Murtaza vividly recollects that people from all parts of the world would come to Imperial College and seeks Dr Salam’s help. He would give a patient hearing to everyone including those who were talking nonsense. He treated everyone with respect and and never belittled or offended anyone. Dr Salam’s strength was that he could “sift jewels from the sand”. On one occasion, a attach� from a foreign embassy in London came to see him at Imperial, and claimed that he had done some work in theoretical physics. On seeing his research documents, Dr Salam immediately recognized his potential and took him under his wings. This young man then went on to achieve great heights in this field.

Dr Salam had devoted his life to promote and bridge the gap between the developed and under-developed countries. He was working tirelessly towards establishing a scientific platform in . He spoke volumes on problems afflicting and suggested practical guidelines on how to tackle the and illiteracy in the third world at the All Conference in Dhaka (1961). He discussed the imbalanced distribution of wealth across and the importance of skilled labour and capital to promote economic development. He gave examples of the struggles and successes of Japan, Russia and and said it was possible for to rescue itself from the grips of economic problems. He suggested that in light of Holy Prophet’s saying that ‘ is akin to kufr”, every mosque should display this prominently. He beckoned all and the to pay more attention to the scientific sector which could serve the country enormously if given a chance. He said could be eradicated in one generation in if the entire country made a firm commitment and he quoted from the Quran for inspiration, “ does not change the condition of a nation until it does not make an effort to change itself”.

During the 60’s he was highly revered and admired scientist but he was by no means a man of the world. Dr Salam had adopted a sufiana style of living and continued with it regardless of status or fame. Once, President Ayub khan had invited him over for a state dinner in honour of the Shah of Iran. His ensemble for the dinner was a simple suit and a pair of torn boots. When his brother pointed this out and suggested that he buy a new pair that evening, he remarked “who will take notice of me or my torn shoes in such a distinguished gathering”. A true dervish in every sense of the word. All throughout his life, his humility knew no bounds, for once during a discussion on gauging intelligence he confessed “I would not even receive a consolation prize in such a contest”.

He worked honestly and painstakingly to promote scientific research in as he firmly believed that could help raise out of its inertia. He was a force behind the establishment of PINSTECH a centre for nuclear research, near Islamabad and SUPARCO in . He worked hard to find a soloution for water-logging and salinity which was damaging the agricultural sector of . He wrote several papers on this subject, which were presented in the US House of Representative and President Kennedy on his request, sent a team of experts which were able to save millions of acres of land.

Dr Salam worked day and night towards the establishment of his Institute for Physics (which Professor Kemmer had foretold at Cambridge) but he did not receive a positive response from due to the error in judgement by then Finance Minister Mohammed Shoiab who advised Ayub Khan that “Dr. Salam wants to build a 5-star hotel for scientists in ”. This disappointed him and so he approached several countries for cooperation. His inspiration came from 2500 years ago when Plato had established a centre for promotion of and knowledge amongst the . The same way this young man from Jhang had envisioned such a centre that would serve as a stairway to excellence for the from third world countries.

During a conference convened by the , to set up a centre of excellence in a third world country, Salam’s proposals received full support from most countries but an Australian representative made an offensive remark, “the concept of such an institute is like a rolls Royce car whereas third world countries like could do with a donkey cart”. Salam did not take kindly to this statement and never visited Australia during his lifetime.

Finally the centre (ICTP) was established in Italy in 1964, (where he served as director for 30 years) and a bridge was created between the developed and the third world countries. Robert Walgate spoke about Dr Salam and said “he is one man without time, strung across two worlds and two problems; it is a to the world that he cannot have two lives”. During this time, keeping in mind the efforts he made for the alleviation of and social welfare around the world, the President of Albania declared Dr Salam a ‘hero’ for the third world, while a Vietnamese professor Nyugen Van Hieu referring to the efforts made by Salam for the promotion of in Vietnam declared that a “Salam centre for theoretical physics” would be established in Vietnam. Professor Hans Blix (head of inspection commission in ) also concurred that Dr Salam was an exceptional scientist of the 20th century, who worked for peaceful progress of in the world.

Dr Salam won the Nobel Prize in Physics 1979 for his research in “Grand unification theory”. This theory was inspired by his spiritual beliefs that all forces emanate from a single source. The hours he spent conducting scientific research at his home, would be against the backdrop of recorded naats and talawat of the Holy Quran.

When the Nobel Committee made the formal announcement he immediately drove to the mosque to offer prayers of gratitude. At the award-ceremony, with special permission from the committee, he wore his national dress (sherwani, khussa and pagri). He began his acceptance speech with the recitation from the Holy Quran (Surah Al-Mulk) and translated it into English. “No incongruity will you see in the creation of . Then look again, do you see any flaw? Look again and again and your sight will return confused and fatigued having seen no incongruity”. This was the first time that the Holy Quran was recited at the Nobel award ceremony. He then narrated a story about how King Frederick sent Michael the Scot to Toledo, Spain in the 12th century, to learn from the muslim scientists and philosophers. The purpose of this story was to give confidence to muslims on the one hand and to remind the people that scientific development in Europe was inspired by muslim scientists and scholars. In conclusion, instead of taking any credit for himself, he said “ is deeply indebted to you for this” and repeatedly thanked for His blessings.

After winning the Nobel Prize, he received invitations from and several other countries and eventually , so he chose to visit his homeland first. In , he visited the tomb of Data Ganj Baksh () to offer prayers and distribute alms. On one occasion en route with Dr Usmani he requested him to drive to College. Dr Usmani told him that as it was vacation season no one would be around. Dr Salam said “the person I want to meet will certainly be there”. As the car approached a group of workers in the college, Dr Salam got out, shook hands and embraced one of them. Dr Usmani in amazement got asked him about the of this man, to which Dr Salam replied, “This gentleman is Saida, a mess servant at New Hostel, who used to lock my hostel room from outside during the exams, and gave me and supplies through the window”.

Dr Salam never forgot all those people who had, in some way, aided him throughout his life. When he was lecturer at Cambridge, he regularly sent money to his retired and impoverished teachers in Jhang. He held all his teachers in the highest of esteem and when he made an official visit to , he insisted that all his Hindu and Sikh teachers who had migrated to , should be invited to all functions arranged in his honour. He met them with great humility and gratitude. He went so far as to visit one of his old teachers, Dr Ganguly, who was suffering from cancer, at his home, accompanied by a senior Indian official who presented the professor with a certificate and cash reward.

Dr salam won 274 awards, degrees and prizes most of which carried substantial cash rewards. He used all his prize money to create a scholarship fund for deserving students as well as to aid impoverished people. He would purchase books and laboratory equipments for various universities and answer hundreds of letters he received from eager students despite his busy schedule.

The nature of his work both scientific and social was such that he had to extensively, his recalls that he always returned home with a suitcase full of new books and journals and often had to repair the cases damaged as a result of excessive load. His home in Putney London, even today, has rows and rows of thousands of books from all over on , philosophy, , geography, social sciences and poetic works of Rumi, Ghalib and and even the likes of P.G Wodehouse and Agatha Christie, which he read for relaxation.

While visiting he was treated as a “hero”. He particularly remembered the honours bestowed upon him by Aligarh and Baba Guru Nanak universities. When he visited PM house on invitation of Indhira she was so in awe of him that she refused to sit at the same level as Dr Salam and instead sat beside him on the floor. When he visited Aligarh University he went straight to the Jami-a-Mosque to offer nawafil. A swarm of eager students followed him into the mosque and on their insistence he addressed them, as imams do, while seated on the manbar (pulpit). When they asked what changes the Nobel prize had brought about in his life, he replied, “the biggest change is that now I can meet all those people that I wanted to and with their help and ’s kindness I am able to help many aspiring scientists from the third world, Nobel prize does not mean anything more to me”.
He never gave in to vanity or arrogance, traits which one would expect in someone whose rise to success was categorically meteoric. Dr Mujahid Kamran (Dean of Sciences, Punjab University) testifies that Dr Salam’s mastery and commitment, deep self respect, enormous confidence and diplomatic skills made him a “People’s Emperor” of scientists from developing countries, from Mongolia to South America, across Asia and Africa.
Once when a journalist asked him how he felt about the fact that because of his extraordinary achievements, his small village Jhang which had earlier been famous for the folklore of Heer, was now known as the home of one of the greatest scientific minds of this century he answered with extreme humility and wit which was characteristic of him. With a smile on his face he said “there are over 325 Nobel laureates in the world, but there is only one Heer”.

In , Dr Salam received some recognition at level but could not visit university and college campuses to address and meet with students as he had wanted to. Certain extremist student organizations had threatened to burn down the halls where he was scheduled to speak. During a lecture in (held under tight security), he explained that the Quran was the source of guidance and inspiration for all Muslim scientists. He then proposed that mosque madressahs should not only impart Islamic teachings but also include subjects in their curriculum, as was the case in muslim Spain, Bokhara, Baghdad etc. On many occasions, he highlighted the contributions of Muslim scholars. He explained how Al-Beruni and Ibn-ul-hashim, Al-Razi, Al-Farabi, Omar Khayyam and Ibne-Sinya had gained immense knowledge in their fields of physics, philosophy, history and much of modern owed its concepts to their research and discoveries.
In 1988 he was invited to speak at the Memorial Lecture in . The contents of his speech elucidate the extent of his humility and diffidence. He confessed that he felt he was far a far lesser man than the gifted poet who lived in a world of and beauty and would enrich all around him, while he (Salam) was an inhabitant of the dry and colourless world of atoms. He highlighted that 1/8th of the Quran summons all believers to think, to question and to harness forces of nature for the benefit of mankind. He felt was an extraordinary man who took on this challenge, as should all believers. He showed how spiritual poetry and were routes to the same destination and how the quest to unfold ’s mysteries, fuelled both the scientist and the poet. Dr Salam concluded by saying that sadly another similarity which drew him and together was that they were considered a persona non grata by their own country.

In the latter part of his life, which he mostly spent in England, when he was asked why he was hesitant to come to , he gave an honest response by saying that it was who was hesitant to receive him. Professor Hoodbhoy while participating in the Salam Day celebrations at Trieste (1997) would corroborate this reality and admit that, “the is that the biggest theoretical physics institution in the world is named after Dr Salam but in , where he was born and raised, not a single scientific or any other institution, not even a landmark, building or a street is named after him. His name neither appears in nor is it mentioned by teachers in centres of learning”.

At many instances, Dr Salam was offered citizenship from several countries, including Jordan and Kuwait, who even offered to nominate him as Director-general UNESCO which Zia-ul-Haq failed to do. From Indian, even wrote to him and said “come on your terms and we will accept”. Even when the British informed him that the Queen wishes to grant him Knighthood but as the title of KBE (Sir) can only be granted to British nationals, he politely declined. Dr Salam remained a loyal and proud citizen of and selflessly fought many battles for his country.
When his began to fail, he repeatedly talked about a few things important to him, his in the Holy Quran and his for his country and its people. He remained unassuming and compassionate, simple in mannerisms and attire, carrying a Quran in his coat pocket all his life. Dr Salam taking on the problems of the third world as his own and working tirelessly and selflessly for the betterment of mankind, beseeching others to do the same, unaware of his own significance, oblivious to the trivialities of the world.

Munir Ahmed Khan (ex-chairman PAEC) in November 1997, aptly eulogized Dr Salam and said “ we Pakistanis may chose to ignore Dr Salam but the world at large, will always remember him”. Jamiluddin Aali, a renowned journalist, in1979, wrote an article for Jang newspaper titled “Two failed heroes of the east are celebrated universally”, referring to Mother Teresa and Dr Salam. Mother Teresa has been awarded Sainthood, after her . While memories of Dr , honoured by aficionados around the world, even today, remain buried under prejudice and disregard in his home country, erased from textbooks and mainstream publications, and without a , the is surely ours.

Aalmi shohrat yafta sainsdaan - authored by Abdul Hameed Chaudhry (Urdu).
Ideals and realities: selected essays of - , Z.Hassan and CH lai Singapore: World Scientific 1984.
a Biography - Jagjit Singh, Publishers - Penguin Books 1992
Extensive interviews with the familymembers of Dr , residing in London, England.

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