Memoirs of Riazuddin, A Physicist’s Journey
Edited by Fayyazuddin and M. Jamil Aslam
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199406661
267pp.

Science has not had much of an imprint in Pakistan. Even in this age of incredible scientific inquiry and mind-boggling innovation, we have achieved almost nothing noteworthy in the field of scientific research — an essential element of scientific progress which has mostly remained unmapped in our censorious society.

The one notable scientific accomplishment — or cause for notoriety — for Pakistan has been its attaining the status of a nuclear-armed state. Nuclear and thermo-nuclear bombs to wipe out whole towns and cities and large swathes of rural villages is what we can boast of. No medical miracles to speak of, nor any invention for altruistic purposes. Thus, as far as science goes, we harbour the dogs of war, waiting to let slip these on the enemy in ‘a befitting reply’, in case of aggression from the East or West.

The few who are privy to Pakistan’s nuclear programme know that the late — and indeed lamented — Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan was not the only Pakistani scientist involved in the country’s clandestine nuclear endeavour. According to one surviving scientist from among those initially involved in this project, some were inexplicably compelled to abandon their work on the programme, and even to abandon the country.

Since none of these scientists have volunteered to pen their memoirs on the subject, there is no evidence to cite such cases, leaving us with only Dr A.Q. Khan to eulogise. He was, undoubtedly, the main architect of our martial nuclear programme, with Dr Samar Mubarakmand to a lesser extent. The rest — including the sole Pakistani Nobel laureate in the sciences, the late Dr Abdus Salam — lie in the ash heap of history.

Pakistan’s late eminent physicist Riazuddin is the main canvas on which several crucial stories, particularly about Pakistan’s nuclear programme, have been painted for posterity’s sake

But some inside intelligence about our much-hyped nuclear potential still manages to leak out from sources not necessarily involved directly with the nuclear programme. One such source is Memoirs of Riazuddin: A Physicist’s Journey, edited by Fayyazuddin and M. Jamil Aslam.

The late Dr Riazuddin was a peace-loving scientist of premier rank and, while his work as a physicist comprises but a third of the book, it sheds enough light into this scientist’s life and work to establish his eminence as a top physicist of the country. He did signal work in spreading the study of high science in several higher educational institutions of Pakistan, such as the University of Islamabad.

The Ludhiana-born Riazuddin and his twin brother and co-author of this book, Dr Fayyazuddin, began their education in Sahiwal to where their family had migrated in 1947. Not finding science as a subject at the college level and above in Sahiwal, the brothers went to Lahore. Thereafter, Riazuddin — and, one presumes, his brother also — studied at top universities in the United Kingdom and the United States, mentored by Dr Salam on the way.

Back in Pakistan, we find Riazuddin establishing science faculties at universities in Islamabad and being central in establishing institutions such as the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (Pinstech) and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) to further Pakistan’s peaceful nuclear programme.

Fayyazuddin compiled and published this book after his twin brother passed away from terminal illness, and gives us many important insights into Riazuddin’s scientific achievements. At the same time, it also lets us be privy to very important and critical information about Pakistan’s nuclear programme from as early as 1947 to 1972 and beyond, when the peaceful programme was suddenly turned into a martial one.

In 1972, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — then president of Pakistan and civil martial law administrator — called a meeting of senior government officials and top scientists, where he himself floated the idea of Pakistan going militarily nuclear. Fayyazuddin attended this meeting and his account is included in the form of a full chapter.

We also get to know that our unsung hero, the great Dr Salam, was not only a mentor to Riazuddin, but to several other Pakistani scientists within the country and without, at institutions such as the University of Cambridge in the UK and universities in the US.

Equally important is the revelation that Dr Salam played a critical role in the formation of the PAEC and the country’s initially planned nuclear programme for peaceful purposes. This was why Pakistan was able to set up the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) with a French-made nuclear reactor at its core.

Salam’s work forms a substantial portion of this two-part book, in which several authors have contributed chapters and appendices on the various aspects of Pakistan’s nuclear adventure, in which the brothers Riazuddin-Fayyazuddin were part — maybe even reluctant — players.

There is plenty of other vital information which should rather be read by prospective readers themselves. Much of it is explosive, especially for those who have knowledge of nuclear physics and allied sciences. It is also volatile information with regards to the performance of some important, government-sponsored players doing a disservice to the country and, alas, getting away with it.

As mentioned, the book has other contributors and the information they provide dovetails into Riazuddin’s story in both high and low scenarios. He, therefore, is the main canvas on which several crucial stories have been painted for posterity’s sake.

Such information is best gleaned directly from the book itself rather than from its review, which would spoil the suspense and lessen the urge to read the book which, indeed, is a must for Pakistanis interested in the mysterious backdrop of our nuclear programme. Incidents cited include important perspectives from Pakistani nuclear scientists, their critical work and the country’s track record in nuclear science.

Most importantly though, it is a must read for our journalists covering national politics and key anchors who pontificate frequently on Pakistan the nation-state. Important questions are raised in the book’s subtext that must also be posed to our governing ‘establishment’. Our bureaucratic institutions — the source of all outcomes, some good, mostly bad in a seven-decade long stint — should be confronted with the plot twists of political game-playing revealed in this narrative.

The irony is that Dr Riazuddin’s revelations are equal sources of elation and despondency. Elation at the fact that Pakistan has had — and even today, has — scientists of world standard. And despondency at the actions of state players whose decisions have proved detrimental to Pakistan’s identity as a democratic state.

The reviewer is a bibliophile

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 10th, 2022

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