The late Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate is no hero at home, where his name has been stricken from school textbooks
The pioneering work of Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate, helped lead to the apparent discovery of the subatomic “God's particle”, last week. But the late physicist is no hero at home, where his name has been stricken off from school textbooks.
Praise within Pakistan for Salam, who also guided the early stages of the country’s nuclear programme, faded decades ago as Muslim fundamentalists gained power.
Salam, a child prodigy born in 1926 in what was to become Pakistan after the partition, won more than a dozen international prizes and honours. In 1979, he was co-winner of the Nobel Prize for his work on the Standard Model of particle physics, which theorises how fundamental forces govern the overall dynamics of the universe. He died in 1996.
Salam and Steven Weinberg, with whom he shared the Nobel Prize, independently predicted the existence of a subatomic particle now called the Higgs Boson, named after a British physicist who theorized that it endowed other particles with mass, said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani physicist who once worked with Salam. It is also known as the “God's particle” because its existence is vitally important toward understanding the early evolution of the universe.
“This would be a great vindication of Salam’s work and the Standard Model as a whole,” said Khurshid Hasanain, chairman of the physics department at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Salam wielded significant influence in Pakistan as the chief scientific adviser to the president, helping to set up the country’s space agency and institute for nuclear science and technology. Salam also assisted in the early stages of Pakistan’s effort to build a nuclear bomb, which it eventually tested in 1998.
Salam resigned from his government post in protest following the 1974 constitutional amendment and eventually moved to Europe to pursue his work. In Italy, he created a center for theoretical physics to help physicists from the developing world.
Although Pakistan’s then-president, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, presented Salam with Pakistan’s highest civilian honor after he won the Nobel Prize, the general response in the country was muted. The physicist was celebrated more enthusiastically by other nations, including India.
Despite his achievements, Salam’s name appears in few textbooks and is rarely mentioned by Pakistani leaders or the media. Officials at Quaid-i-Azam University had to cancel plans for Salam to lecture about his Nobel-winning theory when Islamist student activists threatened to break the physicist’s legs, said his colleague Hoodbhoy.
“The way he has been treated is such a tragedy,” said Mr. Hoodbhoy. “He went from someone who was revered in Pakistan, a national celebrity, to someone who could not set foot in Pakistan. If he came, he would be insulted and could be hurt or even killed.”