The life and times of Dr Abdus Salam

Published: January 31, 2011
The writer is a theoretical physicist and vice-chancellor of the University of the Punjab

The writer is a theoretical physicist and vice-chancellor of the University of the Punjab

Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate Abdus Salam was born in Santok Das, District Sahiwal, on January 29, 1926 a little over 85 years ago. He shared the 1979 physics Nobel Prize with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow for the historic unification of the weak nuclear force with the electromagnetic force.

Salam had already become famous in British India as a very young record-breaking student from Jhang, where he grew up, when he arrived at Government College, Lahore in 1942 as a bachelor’s student. At Government College, too, he continued his record-breaking streak in every major exam and passed out with a Master’s in mathematics in 1946.

Salam arrived at Cambridge as a student of Tripos mathematics in September, 1946 with a three-year scholarship. He completed his mathematics Tripos in two years with a first class. His teacher, Fred Hoyle, one of the most renowned astrophysicists of the 20th century, advised him to do the two-year physics Tripos in one year “as a challenge”. A few others had achieved this feat, after having done a math Tripos in first class. The list included two Nobel laureates — Sir GP Thomson, the grandfather of the present British High commissioner to Pakistan, and Sir Nevil Mott. However, both had secured a second class in the physics Tripos. The challenge was to secure a double first class. Salam was, to the utter surprise of some of his teachers, able to secure a first class in the physics Tripos as well, while completing it in one year. This was a most unusual achievement.

As a student of mathematics Tripos, Salam was influenced by Dirac, a theoretical physicist who came to occupy Newton’s chair at the age of 30, and whom Salam ranked above Einstein. He therefore decided to go do a PhD in physics. He was assigned to Nicholas Kemmer, who already had eight PhD students and had his hands full. However, he was told that Salam was better than all of those whom Kemmer was already supervising. Since Kemmer did not want another research student, he suggested that Salam go to Birmingham to work with Professor Rudolf Peierls. Salam was reluctant to leave Cambridge and so an understanding was reached that Kemmer would supervise Salam “peripherally”. Kemmer told Salam that all problems in Quantum Field Theory, the area in which Salam wanted to work, had already been solved by his outstanding student PT Matthews. He asked Salam to go to Matthews in case he had any problems left.

When Salam asked Matthews if he had any “crumbs” left, the latter gave him a problem on the agreement that if Salam failed to solve it in six months he would take the problem back. Matthews was writing up his thesis and had already become famous on account of his outstanding work. Matthews gave Salam a very difficult problem that he had not been able to solve. It was technically known as the problem of overlapping infinities in meson theory, which dealt with strong nuclear force and pertained to an area within Quantum Field Theory known as Renormalisation Theory. In the electromagnetic theory (known as QED – Quantum Electrodynamics) a similar problem had been encountered and the very young Dyson at Birmingham had contended that the problem could be solved in QED. So Salam phoned Dyson for help in the matter. As Dyson was leaving for Einstein’s institute at Princeton the following day, Salam travelled to Birmingham that very day and travelled back to London with Dyson the next morning. On the train the two discussed the problem. Dyson told Salam that he had only conjectured that the problem of overlapping infinities could be solved but had no proof! However, he did tell Salam the basis of his conjecture on the train.

Salam later wrote: “At Cambridge, amid the summer roses at the backs of the Colleges, I went back to the overlapping infinity problem to keep tryst with Matthews’s deadline. Using a generalisation of Dyson’s remarks I was able to show that spin-zero meson theories were indeed renormalisable to all orders. At that time transatlantic phone calls had not been invented. So I had vigorous correspondence with Dyson, with the fullest participation of Kemmer, my supervisor.” Within three months Salam had solved a problem whose solution had eluded the great Matthews and the great Dyson. The area was so difficult that Professor Kemmer, himself a leader in the subject, was compelled to write: “… some of the details are to this day too complicated for me to follow, at least in the time I have hitherto been able to spare for it…Today I feel I am much more Salam’s pupil than his teacher.”

Matthews, too, was astonished at Salam’s success. Based on the problem he gave Salam, he had chalked out a program for his post-doctoral work for an entire year at Princeton, but, as he told Kemmer “this chap Salam” has already solved the problem! Professor Bambah, who arrived at Cambridge in 1948, knew Salam from Government College. When he was going to Princeton in 1950, Salam asked him to tell Dyson that he had solved the problem of overlapping infinities. Dyson said to Bambah: “I don’t believe it, but if he has done so he will be very famous.”

When Bambah told Dyson that Salam had picked up the problem on account of a suggestion in his own work, Dyson said: “I had said that it should be done and not that it could be done.” Dyson was right — Salam was immediately catapulted to fame among researchers in the world of physics and he was just 24 at that time. In 1950 the world of physics had six young leaders with ages ranging between 24 and 32 years. These were Feynman (1918-1988) and Schwinger (1918-1994) in the US, Matthews (1919-1987), Salam (1926-1996) and Ward (1924-2000) in Britain and Dyson (born 1923) who grew up in the UK and worked at both, Birmingham, UK and Princeton, US. Three of them won the Nobel Prize, Feynman and Schwinger being the other two. Salam never looked back and continued making contributions of the highest order throughout his career.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 1st,  2011.

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Reader Comments (45)

  • Talha
    Feb 1, 2011 - 1:55AM

    Dr Salam was the greatest mind Pakistan ever produced after Jinnah.

    That is his biggest honor.Recommend

  • faraz
    Feb 1, 2011 - 1:56AM

    And when Salam earned the Nobel Prize, the political mullahs demanded that he shouldnt be allowed to live in Pakistan because he holds different religious beliefs. The same mullahs also claim that medieval clerics laid the foundations of modern day science!Recommend

  • Chaloo Chicken
    Feb 1, 2011 - 3:02AM

    The most beautiful and inspiring piece I have read in ET. Why can’t your stories be written with as much hope and inspiration as this one. Or is it an oversight by the editor???Recommend

  • Imran Ali Waggan
    Feb 1, 2011 - 7:03AM

    Salam deserved better from his country men. Perhaps the greatest man Pakistan has ever produced.Recommend

  • Babar
    Feb 1, 2011 - 8:29AM

    Its a shame that after doing what we have done to Ahmadies for so long, we have guts to use accomplishment of an Ahmadi to feel good about ourselves as Pakistanis. Recommend

  • bvindh
    Feb 1, 2011 - 8:35AM

    Salam was buried in the graveyard Bahishti Maqbara in Rabwah next to his parents’ graves.
    The epitaph on his tomb initially read “First Muslim Nobel Laureate” but, because of Salam’s adherence to the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect, the word “Muslim” was later erased on the orders of a local magistrate, leaving the nonsensical “First Nobel Laureate”Recommend

  • Amadeus
    Feb 1, 2011 - 9:32AM


  • neel
    Feb 1, 2011 - 9:51AM

    Hi Sir thanks for telling us about the great man. But what you did not tell us was conspicuous.

    Lets see …………
    He was a ardent believer. At nobel ceremony he recited a verse from holy quran.
    “Thou seest not, in the creation of the All-merciful any imperfection, Return thy gaze, seest thou any fissure. Then Return thy gaze, again and again. Thy gaze, Comes back to thee dazzled, aweary.”

    But then one fine day Pakistan decided to put as law that ahmediya are not muslim. And he left Pakistan(but not love for Pakistan).

    His last wish was to be inscribed on his grave
    “First Muslim Nobel Laureate”
    But then since ahmediyas can not call them selves muslim so the word “muslim” was deleted from the grave and what is left is “First Nobel Laureate”. which is factually incorrect and senseless.

    May be one day These scholar will get the respect the deserve……………..

  • Topak Khan
    Feb 1, 2011 - 9:54AM

    How I wish we had more SalamsRecommend

  • Sandeep
    Feb 1, 2011 - 10:50AM

    What a brilliant, brilliant piece! One of the best articles that I’ve read in the ET to date. Thank you!Recommend

  • M. H. Hussain
    Feb 1, 2011 - 11:19AM

    Great Man. Alas! we never gave him the respect he deserved…Recommend

  • Muhammad israr
    Feb 1, 2011 - 11:52AM

    Great peice sir, salute to dr. salam :)Recommend

  • SKChadha
    Feb 1, 2011 - 12:53PM

    @ Neel:

    Bro, you are right. Salam was buried in the graveyard Bahishti Maqbara in Rabwah next to his parents’ graves. The epitaph on his tomb initially read “First Muslim Nobel Laureate” but, because of Salam’s adherence to the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect, the word “Muslim” was later erased on the orders of a local magistrate, leaving the nonsensical “First Nobel Laureate”.

    So erasing was done on orders of the Court i.e. by Government of Pakistan. See photograph of his grave at

  • Atif
    Feb 1, 2011 - 2:04PM

    Great son of soil, there should not be any distinction among pakistanis on the basis of race and religion, we are only pakistnis, otherwise we are nothingRecommend

  • Talha
    Feb 1, 2011 - 4:07PM

    In 1979, the proverbial spanner got entangled in the works. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that the world’s highest award in physics would be awarded to three scientists ‘for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles.’ One of these was Dr. Abdus Salam. He would go on to become one of the most important theoretical physicists of his day, contribute to a landmark and crucial theory in physics, the Grand Unified Theory, and be celebrated around the world as a great scientist and human being. Except, of course, in his motherland, Pakistan.

    When the Nobel Prize was announced, the government of India was the first to ‘claim him’ and invited him to India with all protocol. Pakistan only reacted when our high commissioner in London intimated [to] Islamabad of the Delhi invitation. [Pakistan’s military dictator General] Zia-ul-Haq’s top brains went into a huddle. Damn if you do and damn if you don’t. The British too had started claiming Dr. Salam as their own! Realizing that it was rather unlikely that Pakistan would ever produce another Nobel Laureate in a billion years, Islamabad cleared its throat and feebly accepted that said scientist was indeed one of their own…

    He Spared No Effort to Promote Pakistan and the Scientific Advancement of This Part of the World; How Ironic That, Through All That Pakistan Did to Him, He Remained Steadfast to This Country

    A very nice article all in all, do read it:
    Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate is now a symbol for those who suffer Islamist intolerance

  • Talha
    Feb 1, 2011 - 4:10PM

    And in other news. the Jamia Millia Islamia of India will organize the Abdus Salam Memorial Lecture.

    Dr Abdus Salam Memorial

    While in Pakistan, we celebrate Qadri. No wonder we are moving backwards and they are moving forwards.Recommend

  • Anjabeen Shah
    Feb 1, 2011 - 6:49PM

    Thankyou for this very enlightening narration of Dr. Abdus Salam’s accomplishments. I have great admiration for not just the writer of this article, Mr. Kamran Mujahid, but the Express Tribune too for having had the ‘nerve’ to publish it, in this country of fanatics. Yes, he was a great man, and so patriotic that he refused to accept the nationality of any foreign country, so that his Award would always be attributed to a Pakistani and remain an honour for Pakistani soil for having produced a Nobel Prize Winner. He had also offered to start a physics nuclear research centre in Pakistan where he could teach and prepare the brilliant young minds of the next generation, and enable them to bag further accolade for the nation but was denied on the same grounds : He belonged to the Ahmadiyya community. Pakistan refused to own him and the prestige that he had brought to it. And preferred to be known for its terrorists, racialists, and extremists. Recommend

  • sk
    Feb 1, 2011 - 7:54PM

    Excellent! Hope we will get to read about Prof Salam’s rest of the outstanding contributions, which are many.Recommend

  • Amaar
    Feb 1, 2011 - 8:58PM

    We can only produce more Abdus Salams only if our state-sponsored support to pseudo-Islamic groups is curbed. We create a mental freeze in society because of prejudice and hatred.Recommend

  • Mubarak
    Feb 1, 2011 - 9:08PM

    A great article by Mujahid Kamran Sahib for a great Pakistani Scientist. I was very lucky to meet this great human being and had a picture with him as well. To me he was a great Dervish besides a great scientist of the twentieth century. Whenever I see a new book on Physics in bookstores I usually go to the index and most of the times I find Dr. Salam’s name. He will remain in my memory forever, may God Almighty give Pakistani nation wisdom to differentiate between friends and foes. Recommend

  • Grace
    Feb 1, 2011 - 9:09PM

    I think the tome of this thread has become one of religion and persecution instead of celebrating the accomplishment of Abdus Salam. Abdus Salam was indeed a true son of the soil who became what he did because of Pakistan. Perhaps this is why he always identified himself with Pakistan. It is unfortunate that he was persecuted because of his religious beliefs. Having said that, we can celebrate him as a Pakistani scientist- Muslim or not- he is a citizen of Pakistan and deserves the respect that all minority members deserve; be they Christians, Ahmadiyas or Hindus.Recommend

  • Jazil
    Feb 1, 2011 - 9:28PM

    Very motivating.
    Just Stand United for Pakistan.
    May Allah bless us all. AameenRecommend

  • Abdul Ghaffar Anjum
    Feb 1, 2011 - 11:09PM

    we salute Dr. Abdus Salam.
    He was the man of commitment. His work is remarkable which motivate the young studentsRecommend

  • Tauseef Khan
    Feb 2, 2011 - 3:14AM

    We need many more Nobel laureates of Abdus Salam calibre to think if competing with the west. Muslims have the ability and the brains if they put hardwork, prayers and dedication to studies above everything else. Recommend

  • Feb 2, 2011 - 4:09PM

    People who are so hypocritically eulogising the incomparable Professor Abdus Salam are the ones who are responsible for the descent of Pakistan into an ignorant and intolerant society, the very antithesis of Islam that Muhammad Rasul-Allah brought to mankind. The great Prof. Salam had been educated in an Urdu-medium school, he had firm roots in Islam and the noble aspects of Islamic culture. To him the English language was a means to an end, not an end in itself. Just look around you and witness a tiny minority of “brown sahibs” lording over the overwhelming majority of unfortunate “natives”, feeling cowed by a torrent of bad English being directed at them.

    In response to some self-righteous drivel issuing from people who like to refer to themselves as “liberal” – a peculiarly Pakistani fetish, this – I wrote:

    “I have a problem with the convoluted logic of Pakistani “liberals”. They owe their “good education” to the graft and the corruption and the sucking-up-to-the-British that their parents and forefathers indulged in. And what has this “education” achieved? It has alienated the tiny “educated” minority from the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis. Not just that – these “fortunate” people are also alienated from their culture and their history. Some even speak Urdu with a deliberately distorted accent!

    Let us start at the beginning and define what we mean by EDUCATION.”

    Needless to say there was no response.Recommend

  • Hamza
    Feb 2, 2011 - 5:15PM

    Bravo! Excellent article in the memory of a truly noble human being.Recommend

  • Maham
    Feb 2, 2011 - 9:07PM

    Very Inspiring indeed!Recommend

  • Feb 2, 2011 - 11:01PM

    only and only one.after Jinnah we ve the sole greatest dr salam on which we can feel proud.our real heroRecommend

  • Burhan
    Feb 3, 2011 - 9:55AM

    May Allah produce more and more great scientists like Dr.Abdus Salam in Pakistan in every field of life..Aameen!Recommend

  • Faisal Fazil
    Feb 3, 2011 - 9:56AM

    Extraordinary intelligent personality, May we all work like him in our field.Recommend

  • Waqqas Iftikhar
    Feb 3, 2011 - 10:34AM

    what a beautiful story….and narrated with such passion….amazingRecommend

  • Asad Shairani
    Feb 3, 2011 - 11:38AM

    What a great man. Hope that we start treating people like Dr. Abdus Salam the way they deserve.Recommend

  • Ahmad Jehangiri
    Feb 3, 2011 - 2:34PM

    A Nation who does not honor his heroes – stop producing them. So till the time we do not own and honor Dr. Abdul Salam we will never produce any another Dr. Salam. Since we honor people like Molana Fazul-ur-rehman, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, Molana Samiul Haq, Sajjid Naqvi, etc., we, therefore have abundant of religious fanatics in our country. Formula is very simple garbage in garbage out. May God save our country.Recommend

  • Omar
    Feb 3, 2011 - 4:00PM

    Truly the best article on Express Tribune yet! He was a fine Pakistani first and foremost, and thats the most important thing!Recommend

  • sk
    Feb 3, 2011 - 8:08PM

    Prof Salam was great physicist.
    What is the state of Physics and Theoretical Physics’ education and research in Pakistan today? Are there any good schools? How is Prof Salam’s contribution utilised to inspire others? Are there any prestigious awards, memorial lectures, scholarships, chairs etc. I am curious to know.
    He is highly respected in India his lectures at Tata Institutue of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, the premier Physics research institution in India, were highly valued. His work at Trieste enouraged many Indian physicists to do top class work.Recommend

  • MS Hasan
    Feb 3, 2011 - 8:09PM

    What an unfortunate country. The person who brought so much honor for this country and what we did to him….
    could have done wonders had he stayed here. My heart bleeds…Recommend

  • Abdul Mannan Lodhi
    Feb 3, 2011 - 8:11PM

    Dr.AbdusSalam was a great man and a patriotic Pakistani who brought good name to his country ,to his nation.We need to remember and appreciate all who have done some thing for this country of ours.And it is sad that they are not many.Although our parliament has declared the Ahmadis non believers.Allah is the best judge ,All knowing,the Merciful.So for our country Pakistan is concerned we have all respects and admiration for those who have served our nation ,has brought good name to it irrespective of their religion.There are many Hindus ,Christians and Parsis and others who have served their nation Pakistan and are serving it now.Pakistani nation needs to acquaint themselves with all those who have served the cause of Pakistan.I am not aware of any publication where in we can find about the names and deeds of all such great men and women.Will some body come forward and help achieve this objective.May God bless Pakistan and those who are helping to make it great.Recommend

  • Malik
    Feb 4, 2011 - 3:49AM

    Faiz, Salam and revolution

    I would add Taseer to the list. Recommend

  • Muhammad Athar Javaid
    Feb 4, 2011 - 3:55AM

    I realized that everybody is feeling bad about what this nation has done to Mr. Dr. Abdu-s-Slam because of his religious believes. But let me put a question to all of you about Mr. Dr. Abdul Qadir. The day after his death, are we all going to write this same kind of lines of sorrow for what this nation has again done to another hero of their soil or we realize his importance in his life? It is very easy to morn over the past but very difficult to accept our own mistake in present. Let me clearly state that we are all doing mistake by disrespecting Mr. Dr. Abdul Qadir.Recommend

  • Mujahid Kamran
    Feb 5, 2011 - 4:08PM

    The proposed title of the article was “Abdus Salam’s Rise to Fame”. That is why the article does not cover his entire life. The title was however changed by the editors. Recommend

  • Ahmed
    Feb 5, 2011 - 8:38PM

    His brilliance is only equivalent to one thing –> the misfortune of Pakistan for not owning such a novel mind as its own. Such a such a marvelous genius to be born to such an incompetently theocratic nation of whose people are either ignorant of his (salam’s) feats or are not ready to own them. Recommend

  • zeeshan ahmad
    Feb 5, 2011 - 8:48PM

    His country didn’t honor him but he honored not only his country but his country men too, whether they accept it or not. And that’s the style belonging to the people who are declared great in the eyes of God.

    May his soul rest in peace. aminRecommend

  • zeeshan ahmad
    Feb 5, 2011 - 8:58PM

    @Mujahid Kamran:

    thank you very much sir, i really appreciate your effort of talking about a man who was never considered by this nation only because of his believes, which is a matter only between him n God.
    I was a student of ICS – PU, in the times when you took the charge as VC. You honored us at various occasions with your presence among us.

    prayers & best wishes for you :)Recommend

  • daud munawar
    Mar 7, 2011 - 7:47AM

    Pakistani Govt, Pakistani Mullah should be ashmed of yourself. Ahmadis are progressing and you are not. You are getting into dark ages.Wake up, it is never too late. If you can’t do that, then ” DOOB MURO”Recommend

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