Dr. Salam was born on the 29th of January 1926 in the conservative religious environment in Jhang, Punjab, Pakistan. He was a head clerk’s son from the Indo-Pak subcontinent. His family has an extensive tradition of learning and piety. The first Pakistani citizen to get a Nobel Prize, he chose to remain a Pakistani national all of his life, whereas a scholar of Salam’s stature could have honoured by any country if he adopted its citizenship. In November 1996, Salam was buried at Rabwah, Punjab, Pakistan.
Dr. Salam, as a 19-year-old student at the Government College Lahore (GCL), wrote his first paper that proposed a simple solution to an intriguing mathematical problem posed about 20 years earlier by Srinivasa Ramanujan, the legendary Indian mathematician. Salam ended the paper by declaring that the solution by Ramanujan is more laborious. This paper was Salam’s debut into the world of mathematicians.
In the early 1960s, Salam was one of the top particle physicists of the world, ultimately winning almost twenty international prizes, including the 1979 Nobel Prize.
Salam’s greatest act of generosity, however, would come after he had won the Nobel, when he decided not to take a single cent of the prize money for himself – instead donating it all to a foundation established to commemorate his parents Muhammad Husain and Bibi Hajira. This money was to be utilised not only to help poor science students across Pakistan, but also to provide essential scientific tools to the laboratories of various Pakistani colleges.
Our universe is governed by four natural fundamental forces: weak nuclear force, electromagnetic force, force of gravity, and strong nuclear force. The unification of these four forces into one super force is a task that physicists are trying hard to achieve. Influenced by the work that was going on in this context, Salam also started working in the direction of unification of forces in 1959.
Eventually, Salam, along with Glashow and Wienberg, provided the theory that showed the unification of the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force in 1968. This single theory is called electroweak theory. They figured out that both these forces’ mathematical framework is quite similar and thereby proved the electroweak unification theory mathematically. When certain elementary particles interact, the theory predicts that weak interaction expresses itself in “neutral weak currents.” This was later confirmed. Because of this unification, they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979.
Salam’s mathematics and physics skills always set him apart from his classmates. Even his teachers at Cambridge were amazed by his excellence. His instructors once challenged him to solve a problem that had troubled great brains like Paul Dirac and Richard Feynman in a year during his PhD studies. Salam, to their astonishment, addressed the problem in under six months. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, and P. Dirac were all interested in Salam’s solution for the renormalization of meson theory. Salam’s doctoral dissertation work on quantum electrodynamics also earned him international acclaim and earned him the Adams Prize.
Throughout the scientific career, Salam made some extraordinary contributions to high energy and theoretical physics. Salam introduced the concept of chiral symmetry in neutrinos theory, which contributed crucially to the electroweak theory. He introduced the massive bosons (Higgs) to the Standard Model (SM) theory, where he later anticipated the presence of proton decay. In addition to this, Salam has made significant contributions to contemporary neutron star and black hole theories, and modernising quantum field theory (QFT) and quantum mechanics (QM). The Pati-Salam model and photon (magnetic) are two other products of Dr. Salam’s brain.
In 1951, Dr. Salam returned to the Pakistan to teach mathematics at GCL, and in 1952 was appointed head of Punjab University’s Mathematics Department. He had returned with the idea of establishing an institute of research, but it quickly became evident that this was almost impossible. He had no choice but to leave his native country and work overseas in order to pursue his career in the theoretical physics research at the time. Many years later, he was able to overcome the heartbreaking dilemma that several young and talented physicists from impoverished nations were facing. He instituted the famous “Associateships” at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) Trieste, Italy, which allowed talented students to spend their vacations there in an invigorating atmosphere, in close contact with their peers and with scientists engaged at the highest levels of research – thus losing their sense of isolation and returning to their home countries refreshed and recharged for their academic year.
The Director Generalship of UNESCO became available in 1986. Salam wished to be considered, and everyone expected him to be elected. Lt. General Yaqub Khan was nominated by Pakistan. Salam was offered a nomination by both Britain and Italy if he agreed to become their citizen. He flatly refused
Salam was a key figure in Pakistan’s development of nuclear power for peaceful uses. He was appointed head of Pakistan’s mission at the IAEA in 1964 and served as its representative for a decade.
He was denied an official house when he arrived at Government College Lahore as the head of the Mathematics department in 1952. When he asked Education Minister Sardar Abdul Hameed Dasti to look into the situation during an interview, the Minister flatly informed him that if the position didn’t suit him, he could quit. Professor Sirajuddin, the Principal, later requested him to coach the college football team, a position he despised since it went against his nature and was a waste of time for someone who spent fourteen hours a day at Cambridge doing intellectual work. Professor W. Pauli, the Nobel laureate (1945) in Physics, who was touring India at that time, encouraged him to come to Bombay for the Christmas vacations. Salam traveled to India for a week and was charged with leaving without obtaining prior consent before departing. He was taken aback, because he was accustomed to European freedom of movement. However, the Director Public Instruction intervened later, and his visit was considered to be unpaid leave.
He was Theoretical Physics professor at Imperial College, London, since 1957, and since 1964 he also served as Director of the ICTP in Trieste. Dr. Salam returned to Pakistan after collecting the Nobel Prize. When he arrived in Lahore, Peshawar, and Islamabad in December 1979, he was greeted by subordinate army officers serving as military secretaries to provincial governors and the President. Five universities awarded him honourary degrees a year later, in January 1981, while he was in India, including the Guru Dev Nanak University of Amritsar, where he addressed the convocation in Punjabi on the 25th of January 1981, and the university, on his request, brought four of his old teachers from Jhang and Lahore to Amritsar. Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister, brought him to her home, prepared coffee for him with her own hands, and sat on the carpet at Salam’s feet during the meeting, saying it was her manner of honouring a magnificent guest. Later on his tour of Latin American countries, including Brazil, he was greeted by the president of each country at the airport.
The Director Generalship of UNESCO became available in 1986, and names were sought. Salam wished to be considered, and everyone expected him to be elected. However, a candidate may only be nominated by their own nation. Lt. General Yaqub Khan, a former army officer, was nominated by Pakistan. Salam was offered a nomination by both Britain and Italy if he agreed to become their citizen. He flatly refused. Only one vote was cast in favour of the Pakistani general. When urged by her government to vote for the Pakistani nominee, a French member refused, objected, and eventually quit, stating, “An Army General would manage the UNESCO over my dead corpse.”
Salam died on the 21st of November 1996, in Oxford, surrounded by accolades and praises from all over the world. His brother in Lahore asked the government whether it would be willing to give protocol for the coffin’s arrival, but received no response. He was laid to rest at the foot of his mother’s grave in Rabwah.
Dr. Salam, a physicist, had an insight into his society. He aspired to make a difference in a poor country’s social and educational sectors. As such, he hoped to transform the culture of backward places like Jhang by providing an opportunity for the area’s poor but bright children. He provided generous donations and scholarships to Jhang’s schools and madrasahs. He envisioned these as centres of learning, peace and harmony. Perhaps the late Dr. Salam intended for Jhang to serve as a model district to begin with!
He conducted several public speeches and interviews, both on camera and in print, in his final years, citing his religious beliefs as his source of motivation. He said that his drive for the unification of nature’s fundamental forces, as well as his search for ever lower numbers of constituent particles, was fueled by the notion of God’s oneness.
When facts are considered objectively, no one can deny that Pakistan’s treatment of its first Nobel Laureate has been egregiously unjust. We never fully understood how ignorance and extremism usually fill the void left by a lack of education and awareness. Is it still possible to emphasise the power of discourse over the discourse of power? That is a stance that Dr. Salam fought for, all his life!