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Abdus Salam: The real story of Pakistan's Nobel prize winner

Updated Apr 24, 2017 06:49pm

A star is born

Abdus Salam's birth certificate. — ICTP Photo Library
Abdus Salam's birth certificate. — ICTP Photo Library

On the Jan 29, 1926, Chaudhry Muhammad Hussein and Bibi Hajira Hussien had a baby boy at their two-bedroom abode in Jhang. They named him Abdus Salam — ‘servant of peace’.

I was born in the country town of Jhang, then part of British India, now Pakistan, in 1926. My father was a teacher and educational official in the Department of Education and my mother was a housewife. I had 6 brothers and 1 sister. My family was by no means rich.
Excerpts from Abdus Salam's essay, 'Science and Scientists in Developing Countries'.

Middle school

Abdus Salam's classroom in middle school. —  ICTP Photo Library
Abdus Salam's classroom in middle school. — ICTP Photo Library

Salam had his early schooling in Jhang city.

When I was at school in about 1936 I remember the teacher giving us a lecture on the basic forces in Nature. He began with gravity. Of course we had all heard of gravity. Then he went on to say “Electricity. Now there is a force called electricity, but it doesn’t live in our town Jhang, it lives in the capital town of Lahore, 100 miles to the east”. He had just heard of the nuclear force and he said “that only exists in Europe”. This is to demonstrate what it was like to be taught in a developing country.

Jhang College

Portrait of a young Abdus Salam. —  ICTP Photo Library
Portrait of a young Abdus Salam. — ICTP Photo Library

At the age of 12, Abdus Salam was admitted to Jhang’s local college for his intermediate education.

In the following article, published in the Urdu monthly magazine 'Tahzeebul Akhlaq' in Jan 1986 (translated by Zakaria Virk), Salam narrates his account of the time he spent at Jhang College.

I was admitted to Jhang College, Pakistan in 1938 at the tender age of 12. I spent four years there. In those days it was an intermediate college, grade 9, 10, first year and second year classes were taught there. The majority of students in the college were Hindu. It was my good fortune that I had some of the exceptionally learned and most affectionate teachers assigned to me.

The foundation of my academic career was laid in this college. I believe that I owe all of my later accomplishments to this institution and to its hard-working teachers. I firmly believe that a teacher’s affection and his proper attention can make or break a student.

Right from the start, Salam was deeply invested in his academic growth. At 14, he scored record breaking marks in Punjab University's matriculation entrance exams.

I remember returning home around 2 p.m. in the afternoon on my bicycle from Maghiana to Jhang city. The news of my standing first in the exam had already reached Jhang city.

I had to pass through Police Gate district of Jhang city to reach my home in Buland Darwaza. I distinctly recall that those Hindu merchants who normally would have closed their shops due to afternoon heat, were standing outside their shops to pay homage to me. Their respect for me and their patronage of education has left an indelible impression on my mind.

Mathematics at Government College Lahore

In 1942, Salam joined the Government College University at Lahore. He enrolled to study Mathematics A and B, and English. Apart from being somewhat of a prodigy at mathematics, Salam was also seen as a highly able student of the English language by his mentors. It is recorded that some of his tutors thought he would make a great English teacher.

First paper and a scholarship

"A Problem of Ramanujan": Salam's first published paper. —  ICTP Photo Library
"A Problem of Ramanujan": Salam's first published paper. — ICTP Photo Library

In Mathematics, Salam published his first paper in 1943. It was titled, "A problem of Ramanujan". He graduated next year with jaw-dropping scores: 300 out of 300 marks in Mathematics, 121 out of 150 in English Honours. He stood first at his university, breaking all records in the B.A examinations. As a result of Salam’s high scores, he secured a scholarship for further studying mathematics at Cambridge University’s prestigious St John’s College.

I wrote my first research paper when I was about sixteen years of age which was published in a mathematics journal but I wasn’t actually hooked on research till I went to Cambridge University.

I was very fortunate to get a scholarship to go to Cambridge. The famous Indian Civil Service examinations had been suspended because of the war and there was a fund of money that had been collected by the Prime Minister of Punjab. This money had been intended for use during the war, but there was some of it left un-used and five scholarships were created for study abroad. It was 1946 and I managed to get a place in one of the boats that were full with British families who were leaving before Indian Independence. If I had not gone that year, I wouldn't have been able to go to Cambridge; in the following year there was the partition between India and Pakistan and the scholarships simply disappeared.

Salam at Cambridge

21 year old Abdus Salam at Cambridge. —  ICTP Photo Library
21 year old Abdus Salam at Cambridge. — ICTP Photo Library

I remember my first day at St. John’s College in London, England. When I arrived there my 40 kilogram luggage bag was brought from the railway station by a taxi driver. On arrival at the college I asked a porter for help. He pointed towards a wheel-barrow and told me to help myself. These incidents I am narrating here not for the sake of pastime but the subject at hand is education whereby these anecdotes become part of getting a point across.

While being groomed in a quintessentially British environment at Cambridge University, Salam did not lose sight of his purpose of being there. His grades spoke volumes about his performance.

As K K Aziz points out in this book, The Coffee House of Lahore, “he got a first both in preliminary in 1947 and Part II in 1948, and then gave up Mathematics for the time being because on the higher level it could not be fully mastered without a good knowledge of physics. In an unprecedented performance, he read Physics for one year and took its Part I and II together in 1949; scoring a first and surprising even his teachers.”  

His time at Cambridge ended, for the time being, with a PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory at St John's. By the end of his tenure, he had made a mark in the scientific fraternity as a promising young scientist.

'Intellectual isolation' in Pakistan

In 1951, after having won a number of awards and accolades, Salam was ready to move back to Pakistan. He dismissed an opportunity to spend a year at Princeton University (where Professor Albert Einstein was too!) and took up the offer to head the mathematics department at the Government College Lahore (GC).

Unfortunately, his time in Lahore was turbulent right from the start. The university allegedly failed to give him an official accommodation. Salam, with his wife, moved in with his colleague Qazi Mohammad, a professor of Philosophy at GC. To resolve the matter, Salam scheduled a meeting with then minister of education, Abdul Hameed Dasti. The minister, dismissively said to Salam, “If it suits you, you may continue with your job; if not, you may go.”

Prominent historian Khurshid Aziz in his book, The Coffee House of Lahore, narrates two incidents that exemplify Abdus Salam's time at GC.

Salam, the football coach

"Professor Sirajuddin, asked him (Abdus Salam) to do something to earn his keep besides his teaching. He was given three choices: to act as Superintendent of the Quadrangle Hostel or to supervise the college accounts or to take charge of the college football team. Salam chose to look after the footballers. Occasionally, at the end of his chore at the University Grounds, he would drop in at the Coffee House and tell me (Khurshid Aziz) about his bitterness on being forced to waste his time. A man who had worked 14 hours a day at Cambridge as a student had now hardly any time to read new literature on his subject, and the facilities in the college laboratory were dust and ashes compared to the Cavendish Laboratories where he had worked as an undergraduate and a doctoral student. It was not difficult to take the gauge of Salam’s frustration."

Leaves without permission

"A more serious contretemps occurred in the Christmas Holidays of the same years. Professor Wolfgang Pauli, the 1945 Nobel laureate of physics and a friend of Salam, was visiting Bombay on the invitation of Indian science association. He sent a telegram to Salam wishing to see him and asking him if he could come to Bombay. Salam, who had been craving to talk to a peer in his field, at once left for India, and spent a week with Pauli. On his return to Lahore, he was charge sheeted for absenting himself from his station of duty without prior permission. Salam was shocked. He was used to European freedom of movement and had been part of Pakistani bureaucratic set-up for a mere three months. The principal made so much fuss about the incident that Salam feared that he might be dismissed from the education service. At this point S.M. Sharif, the director of Public instruction of the Punjab, intervened and the period of Salam’s absence was treated as leave without pay.”

Riots strike Lahore

A news clipping on the Ahmadiyya riots in 1953. —  Dawn archives
A news clipping on the Ahmadiyya riots in 1953. — Dawn archives

In February 1953, anti-Ahmadiyya riots set the city of Lahore ablaze. Incidents of looting, arson attacks spread across not just Lahore but to other parts of Punjab as well. Hundreds of Ahmadis were feared to be murdered.

When the dust settled, Abdus Salam had returned to St John's College as a mathematics lecturer.

A fresh start

Salam, back at St Johns College, Cambridge. —  ICTP Photo Library
Salam, back at St Johns College, Cambridge. — ICTP Photo Library

I returned to Cambridge in 1954 as a lecturer and Fellow of St. John’s College. Three years later, I accepted a professorship at Imperial College, London, where I succeeded in establishing one of the best theoretical physics groups in the world.

Abdus Salam's certificate for induction into the PAS. —  ICTP Photo Library
Abdus Salam's certificate for induction into the PAS. — ICTP Photo Library

Despite his move from Pakistan, sections of the Pakistani academia and intelligentsia had begun to value Salam as an asset. He was inducted in 1954, as a fellow at the Pakistan Academy of Sciences.

Finding home at the UN

Salam at the United Nations. —  ICTP Photo Library
Salam at the United Nations. — ICTP Photo Library

In 1955, Salam had his first brush with the UN as scientific secretary at the first 'Atoms for Peace' conference. He also helped set up the United Nations Advisory Committee for Science and Technology. The experience was memorable, as he narrated in an interview, years later.

Abdus Salam in conversation with WBGH.

Heading the Theoretical Physics department at Imperial College

Salam with his colleagues at Imperial College, London. —  Imperial College
Salam with his colleagues at Imperial College, London. — Imperial College

In 1957, Salam joined Imperial College London, initially, as a lecturer of applied mathematics. By next 1960, he was bestowed with the responsibility of chairing the Theoretical Physics department, along with Paul Matthews.

In both Cambridge and London, he had formulated a team of scientists to work with, a majority of whom were Pakistanis. One such scientist was Munir Rashid.

In an interview with, Rashid spoke about the kind of work ethic that characterised Salam.

Scientific secretary for the Government of Pakistan

Salam greeting Field Marshal Ayub Khan. — ICTP Photo Library
Salam greeting Field Marshal Ayub Khan. — ICTP Photo Library

President Field Marshal Ayub Khan appointed Abdus Salam as his Chief Scientific Officer. With this appointment, Salam endeavoured to improve the standard of scientific progress in Pakistan, using his newly legitimised influence as a leading scientist. During the 60s Abdus Salam gained influence in Pakistan’s domestic scientific policy and established a number of scientific institutions in Pakistan.

Establishing science in Pakistan

Salam with Pakistani scientists. — Dawn Archives
Salam with Pakistani scientists. — Dawn Archives

By now, Professor Salam was juggling a hectic schedule. A lot of his time was spent travelling, mentoring PhD students around the world. Central to his professional ambitions was the idea of developing science in the third world. Despite the obstacles in his path, Salam devoted his energies towards establishing scientific institutions in Pakistan. Together, with I H Usmani, another Pakistani scientist, Salam set out to do this. He became a member of Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission and under the 'nuclear' umbrella, did much more than just enhance Pakistan's nuclear energy capabilities.

Abdus Salam in conversation wit WGBH

Setting up ICTP in Trieste

Salam inaugurating the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste. —  ICTP Photo Library
Salam inaugurating the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste. — ICTP Photo Library

The International Centre for Theoretical Physics was another brainchild of Professor Abdus Salam. Professor Salam believed in the potential that scientists from the third-world could offer to the global scientific community. ICTP was set up in Italy’s Trieste after attempts to establish such an institution in Pakistan failed. His colleague Munir Rashid narrates:

Munir Rashid in conversation with

The notion of a Centre that should cater particularly to the needs of physicists from developing countries had lived with me from 1954, when I was forced to leave my own country because I realised that if I stayed there much longer, I would have to leave physics, through sheer intellectual isolation.

Abdus Salam with his peers at the ICTP library. —  ICTP Photo Library
Abdus Salam with his peers at the ICTP library. — ICTP Photo Library

Finding peace in a nuclear world

In 1968, Salam received the Atoms for Peace award for his efforts in “making the world aware of the benefits to be gained from using nuclear knowledge for peace, health and prosperity.”

Setting up Pakistan's first nuclear power plant

Salam greeting Z A Bhutto. — PAEC
Salam greeting Z A Bhutto. — PAEC

In 1970, Salam helped set up Pakistan’s first nuclear power plant in Karachi with the help of Canadian and Pakistani engineers.

A cheque drafted by Abdus Salam for a student. —  ICTP Photo Library
A cheque drafted by Abdus Salam for a student. — ICTP Photo Library

“I am a humble man,” Salam would often say, whenever confronted with a complication. In all his humility, Salam’s generosity was a quality that many of his colleagues and pupils associated him with. He was known to spend out of his own pocket to make it possible for budding scientists in the developing world to realise their potential.

Funds allotted for science in developing countries are small, and the scientific communities sub-critical. Developing countries must realise that the scientific men and women are a precious asset. They must be given opportunities, responsibilities for the scientific and technological developments in their countries. Quite often, the small numbers that exist are under-utilised. The goal must be to increase their numbers because a world divided between the haves and have-nots of science and technology cannot endure in equilibrium. It is our duty to redress this inequity.

Anti-Ahmadiyya legislation

In 1974 under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's regime, the Constitution (second amendment) Act was passed in Parliament, declaring Ahmedis as non-muslims.

Winning the Noble Prize for Physics

The pinnacle of my physics career came in 1979 when I shared the Nobel Physics Prize with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for our unification of electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force in the ‘electroweak’ (a word which I invented in 1978) theory, one of the major achievements of twentieth century physics. This theory had made predictions that could be verified by experiment. The most revealing of these was that a new particle exists at extreme energies. To test this theory we had to convince the experimental physicists working on the great particle accelerators to build new equipment: To create, in principle, conditions that would be similar to those first few moments in the birth of the universe.

Abdus Salam's letter to the editor, published in Dawn newspaper. — Dawn Archives
Abdus Salam's letter to the editor, published in Dawn newspaper. — Dawn Archives

Setting up the Third World Academy of Sciences


Abdus Salam's funeral - Dawn archives
Abdus Salam's funeral - Dawn archives

Abdus Salam died at the age of 70. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and had become frail and weak towards the end of his life.

Salam's journey from Jhang to the peripheries of scientific knowledge is a wonder in itself. He is remembered fondly by the global scientific community at large.

Abdus Salam's grave. — Imran Gabol
Abdus Salam's grave. — Imran Gabol

Regretfully his epitaph continues to provide a ground for ideological warfare between conflicting schools of religious political thought; the word 'Muslim' is often erased from his tombstone.

Tasneem Zehra, Pakistan's celebrated string theorist remembers him in words that encapsulate the void left behind by the great Abdus Salam;

"He was able to see the deep, underlying similarity between apparently disparate forces of nature, just as clearly as he could see through the layers of political and religious dogma, to the common bonds of humanity that unite us all. In his 70 years on this planet, Salam worked tirelessly to reveal beautiful hidden structures – both mathematical and social – and bring together theories and people who were needlessly reft apart. He credited this attitude to his faith, and said his emphasis on symmetry was something he had inherited from the culture of his religion."

Abdus Salam's quotes have been taken from his essay, 'Science and Scientists in Developing Countries'.