Ever since the ‘God particle’ — a particularly recalcitrant subatomic particle that supposedly helps explain how the universe acquired mass and could in principle, therefore, explain how decay takes place — was discovered by a team of scientists in early July in Geneva, nations and individuals have competed with claims of its originality or nationality or both.
The Indian scientific establishment has trumpeted Satyendra Nath Bose, the man who lends his name to the Higgs boson particle, which is a forerunner of the ‘God particle’ itself. There is also Jogesh Pati, a US scientist of Indian origin, who, along with Pakistani scientist Abdus Salam, worked on quarks and leptons. Steven Weinberg of the US, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974, along with Salam, for their work on the unified theory of weak and magnetic forces, has just written an article in The New York Times.
In fact, Salam and Weinberg had, as long ago as 1967-1968, identified all the properties of the Higgs boson, except its mass, in their electroweak theory. So, in early July, when the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva discovered the ‘new electrically neutral, unstable particle’ that was supposed to be the missing link in understanding how the universe was first created — the God particle — the news was naturally treated with the excitement usually reserved for a Rolling Stones concert.
Except in Pakistan, where a thick wall of silence fell upon the scientific community, the political establishment and even the lay public. Abdus Salam, that honourable son who never renounced his Pakistani citizenship — even though countries like India offered him its own citizenship after he won the Nobel Prize — continues to be absent from the pages of that country’s history.
The reason for the deafening silence is simple: Abdus Salam cannot be feted in his homeland because he belonged to the Ahmadi faith.
It wasn’t always like that, of course. Abdus Salam was once hailed as a national hero in Pakistan for his pioneering work in nuclear physics. He was the chief scientific adviser to the president in the 1960s and 1970s, helping to set up Pakistan’s space agency, its institute for nuclear science and technology and its nuclear programme. AQ Khan came later, building on the foundations that Abdus Salam had laid.
Then, in 1974, five years before Salam won the Nobel Prize in Physics (1979), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto amended the Constitution to declare the Ahmadis non-Muslims.
Salam protested, then resigned his government job and moved to Italy, where he helped struggling scientists from underdeveloped countries. He turned down offers from Indira Gandhi for Indian citizenship.
From Italy he went to live in London, England, where he helped the Imperial College set up its department of Theoretical Physics. He died in Oxford in 1996.
Today’s question is whether we can separate the joy of science from the pragmatism of politics. Or, perhaps, we need a band of brave politicians across the subcontinent to restore Abdus Salam to the dignity he deserves. How we remember South Asia’s most deserving sons and daughters depends on how we view our history — and our future.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 28th, 2012.
Correction: In an earlier version of the article, 1974 was incorrectly stated as the year when Salam won the Nobel Prize. The error has been rectified.