Prof. Abdus Salam – Personal Recollections

Introduction to Salam’s Early fame:  Prof Abdus Salam towering personality left many young minds in Pakistan and elsewhere excited enough to emulate him in opting for the fertile field of Fundamental Particle Physics back in 1960s, when the distinction and fame of his personality had spread from Cambridge in UK, where he was then located, to envelop his motherland.

Prof. Abdus Salam – Personal Recollections

There was hardly a young, budding physics student in Pakistan, who did not want to emulate his example and reach his stature. By and large, his fame at the time was engendered by the prediction, and later discovery, of the omega-minus (Ω) particle, a much needed member of the menagerie of fast emerging fundamental constituents of matter at the time.

This discovery was highlighted in the Feb. 20, 1964 issue of the New York Times under the banner headline Key Particle Found in the Atom, Ending Nuclear Physics ‘Chaos’. I was also one among such Pakistani students.

My zest for pursuing Particle Physics was fulfilled to a large extent by joining the department of Physics at the then newly established Islamabad University in 1968 (later to be renamed as Quaid-i-Azam University in 1976). The University, located temporarily in rented bungalows in Islamabad’s twin city, Rawalpindi, provided an extremely vibrant atmosphere with Prof Raziuddin Siddiqui as its vice-chancellor and Prof Riazuddin as the Director of the Institute of Physics.

Although a fair number of research students hailed from what was then, West Pakistan, the majority of students, at least in Physics, appeared to have come from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) – the reason for that was that, in its nascent stage, the University catered for only those students for its Master’s courses in Physics who had BS Honours degree. The BS Honours degree programmes were rare in West Pakistan, whereas in East Pakistan the absence of Honours degree was an exception for any university.  

First Meeting at ICTP

I never actually saw or met Prof Salam face-to-face until summer of 1976 (not too long after my Ph.D. from Manchester, UK) during my first ever visit to ICTP (now AS-ICTP) for a Winter College in Condensed Matter Physics. The environment at ICTP was exhilarating, where I had the opportunity to come across great personalities like Prof John Ziman from Bristol University, UK, Prof N. H. March from Imperial College, London who later moved to Oxford University,

Prof G. Chiarotti from University of Rome, Prof Franco Bassani, also from Rome, but later at University of Pisa, Dr. Erio Tossatti, Prof Mario Tosi and two brilliant young theorists, later faculty at SISSA (The Intl. School for Adv. Studies), ICTP, Dr. Michele Parrinello and Roberto Car (who, both, later rose to fame for their seminal theoretical work on ab initio molecular dynamics simulation method, later known as the Car-Parrinello Method), among the younger researchers at ICTP.

Salam sahib, as I always referred to him in my later years, was, of course, a fantastic personality having close contacts with all the big wigs of international Physics at the time. The corridor leading to his office in the Galileo Building at ICTP had picture cards and other written documents of such friendly contacts with luminaries like J. Robert Oppenheimer,

Who proved to be a great support to him at IAEA in the formation of the ICTP, which faced stiff resistance from some of the so-called advanced countries in the early discussions in Vienna and the great Russian physicist, Lev Landau, whose comic picture card with a donkey’s image still sticks in my mind, among many others.

Salam’s Meetings with Budding Scientists from the Developing World

It was truly amazing that in spite of his extremely busy work schedule – including travels between Imperial College, London, where heading the theoretical physics chair earned him his bread and butter and ICTP, punctuated by his much needed visits to IAEA, Vienna, to keep his much beloved ICTP running – he could still find time to regularly meet all visiting scientists from all corners of the developing world at the ICTP.

He usually met them in groups of about 5-10 scientists hailing from different regions, from Latin America to the Far-East, but made sure that no visiting scientist from the developing world goes back from ICTP without meeting and having a brief discussion with him. The discussions during these meetings usually centred around the main hurdles in doing research in the parent countries of these young scientists and their proposed solutions.

Salam sahib was trying his best to break the isolation of these younger generations from the first rate scientists of the industrially developed world, an isolation he himself faced as his biggest problem on his return to Pakistan after his Ph.D. at Cambridge, UK, which ultimately forced him to leave his beloved motherland back to Cambridge, since he chose to survive in science rather than meet his intellectual demise as a first-rate physicist.

In individual meetings, which were possible on request and by appointment with his office secretary, he would mostly confront these scientists with the single question on what they were doing for (scientific development of) their respective countries.

I was non-plussed once or twice by such a query in his office, which I found difficult to comprehend at first, having started to delve into a description of my own research work back home, which, I soon discovered, he was least interested in.

For him, you had to be either a giant in physics/science like he was, or keep your mouth shut about your own research work, unless you were among pygmies like yourself, for which ample playground was provided by his creation, the ICTP. The group meetings were the feeding ground for infusing the young visitors with inspiration and how they could gain from interaction with the top pioneers of their respective fields of research while at ICTP.

Atmosphere at ICTP

The atmosphere at Salam’s ICTP was simply impregnated with inspiration and enthusiasm. Nobel laureates were all around. Fantastic lecturers on multifarious subjects in all different fields of Physics were abundant. You could benefit from any of them as and when you liked in their general lectures as well as in individual discussions.

All this was owed to a single person whose untiring efforts and dedication to the cause of science in developing countries permeated far and wide. He was simply a dynamo of energy to use his own oft-repeated phrase.

Sad that his own country, for which he refused many a prestigious nationality of the developed world, remained reluctant to give him the honour that he eminently deserved, even after his journey to the final abode.

Author: Dr. M. Zafar Iqbal   

Professor Emeritus in Physics Semiconductor Physics Laboratory

Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad, Pakistan.

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