Source: Winter 2019 volume of the Muslim Sunrise, the longest running Muslim publication of North America
Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
In his achievements, Dr. Salam saw a certain special Providence of God. Let me quote from the transcript of one of his interviews. The questions asked by interviewers are in inverted comas:
“But I am not quite sure how you got to Cambridge.”
I got to Cambridge by means of a scholarship from Small Peasants’ welfare fund which was set up by the Prime Minister of the State of Punjab at that time.
“Did you come from a peasant background?”
That’s right. Although my father was a Civil Servant, he had a small parcel of land and he qualified. So I got one of those scholarships and the interesting thing is that only five scholarships were offered, and the other four people who got them could not get university admission that year. Then came the partition of the country and the scholarships disappeared. So the entire purpose of that fund and those scholarships seemed to be to get me to Cambridge.
“Did you really think that fate was playing a hand? After all, each of these events was very much a matter of chance.”
Certainly my father, who was a deeply religious man, always said that this was a result of his prayers. He wanted his son to shine in some field. Of course, in the beginning he was thinking of me as a Civil Servant, but when I decided that I was going to do research, he felt that this was something very appropriate and encouraged me. But the whole sequence of events, my getting a scholarship at the right time, my getting to Cambridge at all at the right time, and then being interested in science, was all, he thought, very much a part of something deeper. (1)
There is no denying of our dependency on God and our absolute need of His Providence. But, God’s Providence is often linked to our planning and efforts. In the holy Quran we read: “Man will have nothing but that which he strives for.” (2) So, today, I want to look at a few things that Dr. Salam did right in his studies and research that led him to a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 and made him the first Muslim to win a Nobel in sciences.
In 1946, a year before the British India was divided into independent India and Pakistan, he was awarded a scholarship to St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he took a BA (honours) with a double major in mathematics and physics, in 1949.
I believe that the key to his scientific success was that through his handwork and wisdom he became insightful not only in physics but also mathematics. Mathematics serves as the very foundation for the theoretical physics that became his field. For more than forty years he was a prolific researcher in theoretical elementary particle physics. He either pioneered or was associated with all the important developments in this field, maintaining a constant and fertile flow of brilliant ideas.
Let me share three things about the relationship between mathematics and theoretical physics.
Firstly, Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac had shared the Nobel Prize in physics for 1933 with Erwin Schrödinger. Dr. Abdus Salam regarded Paul Dirac rather than Albert Einstein as the greatest scientist of the twentieth century. Gordon Fraser writes in Cosmic Anger: Abdus Salam – The First Muslim Nobel Scientist:
“In his obituary for Salam in 1996, Hoyle said ‘For Salam, the greatest scientist of the twentieth century was undoubtedly Dirac. Of course, you could say this was one John’s man supporting another. But when I asked [Salam] if this included Einstein, he was clear in his answer, which went something like this: ‘Einstein had his mathematics all done for him. Dirac invented his. Not only that, but it was Dirac who first made it clear that the route towards real understanding in theoretical physics lies through abstract mathematics, not through engineering mathematics.’ For those of us who do not aspire to more than engineering mathematics this may seem deflating. But I think it was entirely correct.” (3)
Secondly, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) the famous British philosopher had written in, Study of mathematics,
“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beautya beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry.” (4)
Russell was quoted by a Nobel Laureate in physics in 1963, Eugene Wigner in his famous article titled, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. He wrote:
“THERE IS A story about two friends, who were classmates in high school, talking about their jobs. One of them became a statistician and was working on population trends. He showed a reprint to his former classmate. The reprint started, as usual, with the Gaussian distribution and the statistician explained to his former classmate the meaning of the symbols for the actual population, for the average population, and so on. His classmate was a bit incredulous and was not quite sure whether the statistician was pulling his leg. ‘How can you know that?’ was his query. ‘And what is this symbol here?’ ‘Oh,’ said the statistician, ‘this is pi.’ ‘What is that?’ ‘The ratio of the circumference of the circle to its diameter.’ ‘Well, now you are pushing your joke too far,’ said the classmate, ‘surely the population has nothing to do with the circumference of the circle.’
Naturally, we are inclined to smile about the simplicity of the classmate’s approach. Nevertheless, when I heard this story, I had to admit to an eerie feeling because, surely, the reaction of the classmate betrayed only plain common sense. I was even more confused when, not many days later, someone came to me and expressed his bewilderment [1 The remark to be quoted was made by F. Werner when he was a student in Princeton.] with the fact that we make a rather narrow selection when choosing the data on which we test our theories. ‘How do we know that, if we made a theory which focuses its attention on phenomena we disregard and disregards some of the phenomena now commanding our attention, that we could not build another theory which has little in common with the present one but which, nevertheless, explains just as many phenomena as the present theory?’ It has to be admitted that we have no definite evidence that there is no such theory.
The preceding two stories illustrate the two main points which are the subjects of the present discourse. The first point is that mathematical concepts turn up in entirely unexpected connections. Moreover, they often permit an unexpectedly close and accurate description of the phenomena in these connections. Secondly, just because of this circumstance, and because we do not understand the reasons of their usefulness, we cannot know whether a theory formulated in terms of mathematical concepts is uniquely appropriate. We are in a position similar to that of a man who was provided with a bunch of keys and who, having to open several doors in succession, always hit on the right key on the first or second trial. He became skeptical concerning the uniqueness of the coordination between keys and doors.
Most of what will be said on these questions will not be new; it has probably occurred to most scientists in one form or another. My principal aim is to illuminate it from several sides. The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it. Second, it is just this uncanny usefulness of mathematical concepts that raises the question of the uniqueness of our physical theories. In order to establish the first point, that mathematics plays an unreasonably important role in physics, it will be useful to say a few words on the question, ‘What is mathematics?’, then, ‘What is physics?’, then, how mathematics enters physical theories, and last, why the success of mathematics in its role in physics appears so baffling.” (5)
Thirdly, on the relationship of mathematics and physics, I would refer you to one of my prior collections, 2016 Nobel in Physics Shows Again: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. (6)
Salam’s notable achievements include the Pati–Salam model, magnetic photon, vector meson, Grand Unified Theory, work on supersymmetry and, most importantly, electroweak theory, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1979, which he shared with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg.
When we study biography of any successful person, the emphasis is on his or her strengths and achievements. There is also an element of legend and myth making knowingly and unknowingly. In this process, often the lesson for the ordinary person, as to how he or she can emulate the successful person is lost. In view of this the moments of disappointments are sometimes more revealing than the moments of victory, success and glory. Let me quote, about a phase of struggle in the life of Salam from Gordon Fraser’s book, Cosmic Anger: Abdus Salam – The First Muslim Nobel Scientist:
“Now better informed, in December 1949 Salam went to see Kemmer and asked to be taken on as a research student in theoretical physics. He did not know that Kemmer was already trying to resist pressure from his peers to take him on as another research student – Salam’s examination performance could not be ignored. But with his hands already full with eight other research students, Kemmer did not want any more. He did not expect any newcomer to be as easy to manage as Paul Matthews had been. When he eventually met Salam, Kemmer was still not impressed by the subservient young applicant (‘I nearly refused Salam’, he said later), and suggested that he went instead to Rudolf Peierls in Birmingham. … He wanted to do research and live in college, not to have to fend for himself in a place he did not know. In Pakistan, his wife was now expecting a child. Above all, he was confused and depressed after his fruitless tryst with experimental work, his sudden plunge into deep theoretical waters, and the cool reception from Kemmer. After having followed the advice of his colleagues who had told him to move into research, Salam was now angry and frustrated. His Indian contemporary Ram Prakash Bambah recalls Salam alleging that they had ‘misguided’ him, and using ‘very strong Punjabi expressions’ in his disappointments. Salam pleaded with the haughty Kemmer, asking to be taken on ‘peripherally’, and this time was told to go and talk to Matthews.” (7)
Salam’s meeting with Paul Taunton Matthews opened a new chapter of friendship and collaboration in the life of both. Mathews was one of the most influential figures in the post-war revival of British theoretical physics and played a very significant role in the wider university community, in particular, as head of the Physics Department of the Imperial College.
From this friendship and collaboration blossomed great success for Salam and rest is history.
Having described Salam’s science at some length, as in the beginning of the article, in conclusion, as a firm believer that I am, I want to return to the Providence of God.
Salam’s biography in the official website of Nobel Prize, written by Miriam Lewis, now at IAEA, Vienna, who was at one time on the staff of ICTP (International Centre For Theoretical Physics, Trieste), states:
“Abdus Salam is known to be a devout Muslim, whose religion does not occupy a separate compartment of his life; it is inseparable from his work and family life. He once wrote: ‘The Holy Quran enjoins us to reflect on the verities of Allah’s created laws of nature; however, that our generation has been privileged to glimpse a part of His design is a bounty and a grace for which I render thanks with a humble heart.’” (8)
- Ideals and Realities: Selected Essays of Abdus Salam. Editors: CH Lai and Azim Kidwai, Third Edition. World Scientific, 1989. Pages 465-466.
- The Holy Quran (53:40).
- Gordon Fraser. Cosmic Anger: Abdus Salam – The First Muslim Nobel Scientist. Oxford University Press, 2008. Page 84.
- Gordon Fraser. Cosmic Anger: Abdus Salam – The First Muslim Nobel Scientist. Oxford University Press, 2008. Page 93.