There exists in popular culture a stereotype about the mad scientist and his approach to life, often involving eccentric behaviour, unworldliness, or a unidimensional and exclusive obsessiveness with an esoteric and abstruse field of inquiry whose importance is all but incomprehensible to the layman. On the other hand, there are times when a scientist is portrayed or perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a sage – Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking being two prominent examples of recent times.
Another example of a physicist who is sometimes regarded in a similar manner is Muhammad Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s sole Nobel Laureate. In a recent book about him by fellow physicist Mujahid Kamran detailing his struggles and successes, we are given a portrait of a man whose influence and inspiration transcended scientific circles. Far from being a man of limited scope, Salam mingled and mused not only with the giants of modern physics but also with kings, popes, and leaders of numerous nations and international organizations. In terms of scientific contribution he is mostly remembered for his discoveries relating to the unification of fundamental forces, but Kamran also outlines Salam’s contributions to scientific education and development not only in Pakistan but in many Third World countries across the globe. Perhaps the most significant accomplishment in this area was the creation of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, an institute designed to stem the brain drain from developing countries by financing the temporary visits of Third World scientists to the Centre to learn from and associate with experts of the field. Salam himself had faced numerous problems when trying to establish a teaching career in Pakistan in the early 1950s. Mistreatment by university officials, intellectual isolation, and the anti-Ahmadi riots of 1953 induced him to accept the more congenial prospect of a lectureship at Cambridge, a position for which there had been a unanimous decision that “Salam was the man for the post before anyone else in the world”. But Salam never forgot his early struggles, and was keen that future scientists would not have to exile themselves from their native countries in order to keep abreast of the latest scientific developments, and the result was the ICTP.
Despite there already existing several biographies of Salam, The Inspiring Life of Abdus Salam is not a mere recycling of old material. There is, naturally, some overlap between the contents of Kamran’s book and previous biographies such as those by Abdul Ghani (Abdus Salam- A Nobel Laureate from a Muslim Country, Ma’aref, 1982) and Jagjit Singh (Abdus Salam – A Biography, Penguin Books, 1992). But both of these biographies were written decades ago while Salam was still alive. Kamran’s book has the advantage of being able to draw insights from recollections published by various members of Salam’s family after his death in 1996, thus allowing him to survey the whole of Salam’s life and touch upon his legacy. And because Kamran is himself a physicist, a past visitor to the ICTP (now named the Abdus Salam Centre for Theoretical Physics), Vice-Chancellor of Punjab University, and a personal acquaintance of Salam and many of those who knew him, he is well-placed to acquire hitherto unpublished materials from numerous sources, such as photographs and documents relating to Salam’s academic record at Punjab University, and information gleaned from the archives at Trieste. Many of these sources were not available to the earlier biographers (and not even to the more recent biographer Gordon Fraser, author of the 2008 Cosmic Anger: Abdus Salam – The First Muslim Nobel Laureate).
Early chapters of the book trace Salam’s life from his birth in Jhang to his stellar academic achievements as a youth, and it is clear that from a very early age Salam was eager to learn. Salam’s daughter Aziza Rahman relates the story of how when he was a boy, he tended to eat and read at the same time. On one occasion, he was so engrossed in studying that when he eventually turned to his meal he found an empty plate, the food having been snatched by a pet chicken while he was diverted. Years later his drive and desire to broaden the frontiers of science were also being noticed soon after his arrival at Cambridge. Upon receiving a message from Salam that he had “renormalised longitudinal photons”, the great physicist Freeman Dyson commented, “I don’t believe it, but if he has done so he will be very famous”. Dyson recognized Salam’s brilliance early, just as he himself had been so recognized as a young man by the legendary Max Born, who, after his first meeting with Dyson, remarked to his secretary, “he will become very famous one day”.
Kamran quotes liberally from his sources, allowing the reader to hear directly from those who knew Salam intimately and were witness to his geniality and brilliance. As a student of Salam’s at Imperial College, London, Ghulam Murtaza recounts how “people would be impatient to hear his lecture, halls would be packed, spell-binding physics was dealt with in a literary manner, his command over language would draw praise, and then this incarnation of knowledge and intelligence would receive standing ovations, as if what he had said reflected what was in the hearts of the audience”.
Praise from colleagues and students illustrate both the character of the man and the way his mind worked. Luciano Bertocchi, who worked with Salam at the ICTP, relates how Salam was able to switch from administrative or managerial duties to scientific questions in an instant. John W. Moffat, a colleague at Imperial, describes the faculty lunches where an excited Salam would daily air his latest ideas. Salam’s son Umar reminds us that despite his father having at least three full-time jobs, “he was always worried he wasn’t doing enough”. And physicist Luciano Fonda reveals that the hundreds of thousands of dollars of prize money that Salam received over the years was used to aid struggling students and enhance the laboratories of Third World countries. What emerges from all these personal narrations is an image of a man of penetrating intensity, always working, constantly thinking, deeply concerned for the poor, confident and ebullient, yet good-natured and possessed of a deep humility.
Later chapters of the book delineate Salam’s international efforts to spread the joy of discovery via reminders to Muslim leaders of their glorious scientific past and their Islamic duty to investigate nature, and his attempts to set up even more scientific institutes in Third World countries. By the end of the book, which contains a lengthy list of the dozens of prizes and honorary doctorates awarded to him from Venezuela to the Philippines, we understand the international respect conferred on the man referred to by previous biographers as a “sage-scientist”. Not for nothing did the Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of the neutrino Frederick Reines compose a poem in tribute to Salam, the first stanza of which runs:
“From out of the East there came a man
Who thought to divine the cosmic plan
To unify the hearts of man
And make whole, concepts deep and grand.”
[quote]Hindu shopkeepers, ordinarily taking a siesta in the intense heat, stood up in respect as he passed by[/quote]
Because this book emphasizes Salam the man, there is not as much discussion of physics as can be found in other biographies – the focus tends to be on Salam’s interaction with his colleagues and students and the exciting atmosphere that accompanied their work. This is not necessarily a drawback, but in a book focused more on the man than his art, one wishes that there were more details regarding Salam’s private life, which is rarely touched upon until the final chapter. Fortunately, what is provided is revealing. Kamran describes how he saw Salam’s eyes well up when he was told of the respect ordinary Pakistanis had for him. One is reminded of how, decades earlier, when the teenaged Salam was bicycling back into Jhang after having scored the highest matric exam results in the entire province, Hindu shopkeepers, ordinarily taking a siesta in the intense heat, stood up in respect as he passed by. Despite being vilified and mistreated by certain elements of Pakistani society, Salam never ceased trying to aid his country. At his funeral, tens of thousands of people emerged to pay their respects to him.
Given the resources at Kamran’s disposal, it is somethat disappointing that his book does not delve deeper into important issues, such as the assertions made in a two-part article written by physicist Norman Dombey in 2011 titled “Abdus Salam: A Reappraisal”. In this piece Dombey, himself an acquaintance of Salam, implies that Salam’s Nobel Prize was undeserved, while suggesting that he had a prominent role to play in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program (at least in the early days). Both of these contentions seem to clash with the narratives laid out in the biographies by Ghani and Singh as well as in other sources. Kamran addresses the first claim not at all (though he is certainly aware of the article in question, since he quotes from it), and sheds very little light on the second, with a single, unhelpful passage referring to Salam as having a “peripheral association” with the nuclear weapons program. Kamran does say that Salam was aware of the existence of a nuclear program, and provides a quotation from the diaries of Muhammad Ayub Khan which suggests that Salam did make recommendations to the President regarding the development of a “nuclear option”, but the diary entry is dated 1967, long before serious work on the nuclear program began, and it is unfortunate that Kamran did not take the opportunity to discuss the matter in more detail.
In contradistinction to this paucity of information regarding an important question, is the slightly bizarre addition of the author’s largely irrelevant conspiratorial views of modern history, for which he is, apparently, well known. These, however, are fortunately relegated to just two foonotes.
[quote]The word ‘Ahmadi’ or its derivatives never appears once in the entire book[/quote]
Another strange feature of the book is the fact that Abdus Salam’s Ahmadism is never named. The word ‘Ahmadi’ or its derivatives never appears once in the entire book. Instead, references are always made to Salam’s “community”. Given that Kamran is not shy about taking the government to task for allowing post-Nobel celebrations in Pakistan to be diverted due to pressure from a minority of protesters, one is at a loss to explain this terminological oddity.
Despite a missed opportunity to produce a biography of greater length and depth than any yet published, the occasionally unwarranted diversions, and the lack of an editor, this book provides useful insights into the life and times of the man dubbed by a Swedish newspaper as “the modern day Einstein”. Because Abdus Salam’s own writings are difficult to find in Pakistan, and the biographies by Ghani and Singh are out-of-print, this fresh book is a welcome supplement to literature on the most internationally admired Pakistani of the 20th century.
Kabir Babar is an antiquarian and bibliophile who discusses books at www.facebook.com/KabirBabarSPQR