Abdus Salam and Nobel Prize

The Humble Physicist Who Unified Two of the Four Fundamental Forces in Nature.

 ‘This is your prize, Sir. It’s not mine.’
This is how the first Pakistani Nobel Laureate, Dr. Abdus Salam, paid tribute to his Indian teacher by handing over his Nobel Prize to him.

Dr. Salam while meeting his teacher Prof. Ganguly
Dr. Salam while meeting his teacher Prof. Ganguly

Well, this is one of the most famous instances from Dr. Salam’s life that made him set an example of a pious teacher-student relationship by going beyond all the limits of nation and religion. It is said that Dr. Salam spent over two years locating his mathematics teacher,  Professor Anilendra Ganguly, only to pay respect to him for his teachings. Prof. Ganguly had migrated to India after the partition of 1947. Today, on the eve of Dr. Salam’s 95th birth anniversary, let’s learn about the lesser-known life of the genius who set the stage for the discovery of Higgs Boson.

Background and education:

Dr. Abdus Salam (Image: Getty images/keystone)
Dr. Abdus Salam (Image: Getty images/keystone)

Abdus was born on January 29, 1926, in the city of Jhang (then part of British India and now in Pakistan). His grandfather, Gul Muhammad, was a religious scholar and a physician. At the same time, his father was an education officer in the Department of Education of Punjab State in a poor farming district. Amongst all the siblings, Abdus was the most loved child.

Abdus’ father had a strong belief that Abdus’ birth resulted from a vision he had received from God. So Abdus was always exempted from all the household chores. This gave him ample time to work on his astonishing skills in mathematics. Although living a non-luxurious life in a remote town without electricity, Abdus portrayed extraordinary academic abilities from childhood itself.

At 14, he set a record by getting the highest marks ever scored in Punjab University’s history of matriculation entrance exams. Later, Salam attended the Government College at Lahore, where he published his work on Srinivasa Ramanujan‘s mathematics problems. This academic success was followed by receiving a scholarship to study at University of Cambridge. Following this, Salam completed a BA degree with Double First-Class Honours in Mathematics and Physics from St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1949. This was further followed by obtaining a Ph.D. degree in theoretical physics from the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge in 1951.

Scientific contributions made by Abdus Salam:

Salam’s mathematics and physics skills always set him apart from his classmates. Even his teachers at Cambridge were amazed by his excellence. During his doctoral studies, his mentors once challenged him to solve a problem that had troubled great minds like Paul Dirac and Richard Feynman within a year. To their surprise, Abdus solved the problem within six months only. Abdus Salam found a solution for the renormalization of meson theory that gained the attention of Hans Bethe, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Dirac. Furthermore, Salam’s doctoral thesis on quantum electrodynamics gained him an international reputation and the Adams Prize.

Throughout his scientific career,  Abdus Salam made some extraordinary contributions to theoretical and high energy physics. Salam introduced the concept of chiral symmetry in the theory of neutrinos, which contributed crucially to the theory of electroweak interactions. Salam introduced the massive Higgs bosons to the Standard Model theory, where he later predicted the existence of proton decay. In addition to this, Abdus Salam also made important contributions to the modern theory of neutron stars and black holes and modernizing quantum mechanics and quantum field theory. The Pati-Salam model and magnetic photon are two other products of Dr. Salam’s brain.

The Nobel Prize for Physics:

As we know, our universe is governed by four fundamental forces: the force of gravity, electromagnetic force, weak nuclear force, and strong nuclear force. The unification of these four forces into one super force is a task that physicists are trying hard to achieve. Influenced by the work that was going on in this regime, Abdus Salam also started working in the direction of unification of forces in 1959.

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Eventually, Abdus Salam, along with Glashow and Wienberg, provided a theory that showed the unification of the weak nuclear force and the electromagnetic force. They figured out that both these forces’ mathematical framework is quite similar and thereby proved the electroweak unification theory mathematically.

Dr. Salam(middle) during the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm (Credit: Getty Images)
Dr. Salam(middle) during the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm (Credit: Getty Images)

This unification made them worthy of winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979.

The controversy about being the first Muslim to win a Nobel:

After winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979, the world started regarding Dr. Abdus Salam as the first-ever Pakistani and Muslim to have received a Nobel Prize in science. However, in 1974, a law passed that declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims and deprived them of their rights. So, although for the world, he was the first Muslim to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. But in the eyes of his own country, he was not! In fact, the very word ‘Muslim’ in the sentence “the first Muslim to win a Nobel prize in science” has been whitened out from his gravestone.

Grave of Dr. Abdus Salam
Grave of Dr. Abdus Salam (Credits: Scourgeofgod)

Contributions to development of science:

Despite all the controversies he faced, Dr. Salam didn’t fail to make commendable contributions for the betterment of science in his home country. While working as the scientific advisor to the Ministry of Science and Technology in Pakistan,  Abdus played an influential role in developing the country’s science infrastructure. Abdus was the founding director of Pakistan’s space program and contributed to Pakistan’s nuclear energy development.

Dr. Salam established the Theoretical Physics Group (TPG) in the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and was also the man behind setting up the theoretical physics department at the Imperial College, London, which is now amongst the best ones in the world. Dr. Salam also founded the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, specifically to provide a place for students from developing countries to connect with academics from around the world. It is often said that Dr. Salam didn’t spend even a penny of the Nobel Prize amount on himself, rather he used it to fund the research of those who needed it.

Throughout his life, Abdus Salam strived to make developing countries invest in education and science technology. Undoubtedly, Dr.Abdus Salam is an unsung hero whose legacy needs to be restored! The world definitely needs more heroes like Dr. Abdus Salam. Happy Birthday, Salam!

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