By Aastha Singh, 21 November, 2018
Dr Abdus Salam won the 1979 Nobel Prize for physics. But in his home country Pakistan, he is all but forgotten because of his religious affiliation.
New Delhi: Exactly 22 years ago, on 21 November 1996, one of Pakistan’s greatest scientists passed away, largely unsung.
It hardly seemed to matter to his countrymen that he was the first Pakistani, and only the second Muslim after Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, to be awarded a Nobel Prize. What seemed to matter more was the fact that he was an Ahmadi, and thus, not a ‘Muslim’ according to Pakistani law.
Then, at the beginning of 2018, came a documentary, which begins with the shot of a tomb in Rabwah, home of the Ahmadiyya community. The camera zooms in to identify it as the resting place of Prof. Muhammad Abdus Salam, who in 1979 became the first ______ Nobel Laureate for his work in physics. The blank is created by the word ‘Muslim’ being painted over.
The documentary, titled Salam: The First Muslim Nobel Laureate, has been produced after 14 years of arduous research. While the producers, Omar Vandal and Zakir Thaver, are from Pakistan, the director is New York-based Indian-origin documentary filmmaker Anand Kamalakar.
The film captures Salam’s life, death and disappearance from public memory, and attempts to reintroduce him to the modern audience. None other than former army chief, president of Pakistan and the architect of the Kargil invasion, Pervez Musharraf, has donated money for making the film, along with 378 others.
In an email interview, Kamalakar told ThePrint that he was inspired to join this project in 2015 because Salam was a curious mix of ‘man of science’ and ‘man of religion’.
“I wanted to investigate this contradiction, where on one hand he is working at the highest levels of science, by default trying to make the idea of god obsolete, but at the same time is deeply religious and steadfast in his beliefs,” Kamalakar said.
Tragically, there seems to be no direct way for Salam’s own countrymen to learn about his achievements. It is risky to publicly exhibit the film in Pakistan in the current climate, as many extremist Muslims believe that Ahmadis violate the fundamental prescription of Islam: The uncompromising belief in the finality of the Prophet Mohammad. In recent years, violence against the Ahmadi community has grown significantly and several have even been killed for holding on to their faith.
Also read: Remembering CV Raman, great physicist and Nobel Laureate at 42
Who was Salam?
Salam was born on 29 January 1926 in Jhang, undivided Punjab, to parents who were part of the Ahmadiyya movement.
A child prodigy, he topped Panjab University’s matriculation examination at the age of 14. He was inspired by Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, and based his final year undergraduate thesis on the latter’s work.
Salam’s brilliance earned him laurels at the University of Cambridge, including the prestigious Smith’s Prize. In 1949, he completed his doctoral studies from Cambridge in electrodynamics, only to return in 1954 as professor.
He went on to leave an indelible impact on the scientific infrastructure of Pakistan, helping set up some of its most prominent scientific institutions, such as the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission and the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant.
Salam’s stint as scientific adviser to the President of Pakistan from 1961 to 1974 was an elaborate effort to help restructure the country’s scientific landscape and encourage people to purse their careers and life goals in the field of science. However, in 1974, prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto led the Pakistani parliament to pass a bill declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims, leading Salam to resign from his advisory position.
At the international level, Salam’s gift to science was his proposal to form the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, which he wanted to dedicate to researchers from developing countries. It was ultimately set up in Trieste, Italy, in 1964, facilitating research in “physical and mathematical sciences”. The ICTP was renamed the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in 1997 in his honour.
His greatest achievement, though, was the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics, which he shared with Harvard physicists Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow. The prize was awarded “for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, including, inter alia, the prediction of the weak neutral current”, as per the Nobel Prize Foundation website. Only one other Pakistani has been awarded a Nobel Prize since — Malala Yousafzai in 2014.
— Rafiq A. TSCHANNEN (@MuslimPoly) November 25, 2018