Pride and prejudice: The case of Abdus Salam
Pakistan’s collective diary has had quite a few pages ruthlessly torn out of it. The chapter of Abdus Salam is also one of those classic tragedies that are symptomatic of deeper ills pervading our society.
The story of his rapid descent from the position of an honourable presidential advisor to that of a heretic in exile speaks volumes about a number of issues – the value we place on education and science, the heroes we pick and choose, and the treatment meted out to minorities in this country - each one of these being as relevant on his 88th birth anniversary today as ever before.
Abdus Salam remains, to date, Pakistan’s only Nobel Laureate.
What is so special about a Nobel Prize in Physics?
For many viewers outside the sciences, the idea conjures the image of an arbitrary honour bestowed by an elite club, for esoteric work that has nothing to do with real life. That perception couldn’t be further from the truth. We occasionally stop to appreciate it but a wonderful truth of this day and age is that our lives are inextricably linked to the obscure blackboard calculations performed by some curious minds in another corner of the world.
Few people look around and marvel at how far breakthroughs in fundamental science have brought us. From the colour of your finger-nails to the motion of the tiniest atoms in the depths of stars, we have a very good idea about what’s going on.
Despite the limitations of our senses, we have a lot figured out about the world around us. That is no small achievement, considering that we only learnt counting and writing some 10,000 years ago – a blip in the lifetime of the universe itself.
This feat of humanity is all because of the curiosity and brilliance of minds like Abdus Salam, who’ve helped us unearth nature, one piece of the puzzle at a time. Salam’s formulation of the electroweak interaction is one such important piece.
Ultimately, it has to do with those basic questions we all yearn to have an answer for at some point – what are we made of, where did we come from and where are we going?
And yet, when one of us rose to the challenge of painstakingly uncovering the answers for the rest of us, we snubbed him.
Even though Salam’s scientific accomplishment alone merits him the highest respect a scholar may yearn for, his greatness lies in what he attempted to do for third world scientific talent and particularly Pakistan who should have cherished him all the more.
As Gordon Fraser writes in his biography,
“If Abdus Salam had not been, the ‘theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interactions’ would still have happened. But there would have been less international focus for Third World scientific talent and there would have been more injustice in this world.”
Salam started his journey from a village in Punjab where there was no electricity, went on to nail the essence of it in Cambridge before returning to teach in a country where nobody had even heard of Quantum Mechanics before. He unerringly knew about the academic disparity between the developing world and the West.
Despite having been driven out of Pakistan by the sectarian riots early on in his career, he dedicated himself to securing resources that would help the cause of science and development in his home country. Few people are aware of the bureaucratic battles he had to fight to establish the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste and then later on to sustain it when it was boycotted by developed powers during the Arab-Israel war.
Salam’s ideas were crucial in solving the problems of water-logging and salinity during the modernisation process initiated by Ayub Khan. In between saving Pakistan’s agrarian economy’s backbone, Salam managed to be a remarkably productive scientist on his own, which is no easy task considering how frustratingly demanding Physics research can be. He established the key institutions for Pakistan’s, then peaceful, nuclear and space programs and trained the next generation of scientists, like Riazuddin, Fyazuddin, Faheem Hussain etcetera, who would lay the groundwork for Physics research in Pakistan.
Yet, when he ran for UNESCO leadership in the 1980’s, Ziaul Haq’s government refused to support him as a candidate from Pakistan and put forward a military general’s name instead. The worst blow was, of course, the excommunication he suffered on religious grounds, the echo of which still continues to resound in the plight of Ahmadis and other religious minorities in present day Pakistan.
Every year, his anniversary goes almost unnoticed by the masses, except for a few embarrassing reminders of the injustice we have collectively rendered to that hero.
Of course, we’re not the only country where intellectual brilliance has been ignored and prejudiced against but we are taking unusually long in acknowledging our mistake.
Alan Turing was recently granted a late pardon by the British Crown, admitting to its folly in wrongfully destroying the life of the father of Computer Science by convicting him of homosexuality. In India, Ramanujan went unacknowledged his whole life but is now the subject of commercial films, with his birth centennial marked by a procession through the streets of his hometown and the prime minister personally sending tokens to the late Mathematician’s widow.
In Pakistan, aside from a couple of institutions in Lahore, Abdus Salam’s name begs for some form of official recognition. Despite repeated calls, no one in the government has had the courage to even offer a posthumous apology on behalf of the nation, let alone repaint his desecrated gravestone.
The improvement in the stature of science and the quality of education is a lengthy process and will require the resilience of many Abdus Salams’ in this country. But just like we have displayed pettiness by ignoring him, we could also symbolise our commitment to move forward by restoring his place in our history and memory.
That might be our only shot at redemption, till we produce another Abdus Salam.
Happy Birthday Sir Abdus Salam!
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