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Remembering Salam – the Man and the Physicist

Photo Courtesy - Dawn
By TR Pakistan

Theoretical Physicist Michael Duff reminisces about his experience as a student of Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate Abdus Salam at Imperial College of London.

Professor Abdus Salam had been a firm believer in the notion that rather than relying on technology transfer from abroad, developing countries should cultivate their own scientific elite that could generate cutting-edge knowledge.

This was stated by Professor Michael Duff at the third Abdus Salam Memorial Lecture held at the School of Sciences and Engineering of the Lahore University of Management Sciences. The lecture has been an annual event for three years to mark the birth anniversary of Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate.

Professor Duff, who holds the Abdus Salam Chair at the Imperial College of London where he had finished his doctorate, said that Salam’s passion for seeing the developing countries become “arbiters of their own destiny” led him to found the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy. “He had wanted to set up the Centre in a developing country but eventually settled with Italy as its location because of the funding available there,” he said. Since its establishment in 1964, ‘the Centre has been working for promotion of scientific knowledge in developing countries’.

Another platform through which Salam had promoted scientific learning was the office of the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Pakistani government. He had held the post from 1961 to 1974.

Read more: National Centre for Physics at Quaid-I-Azam University Renamed “Professor Abdus Salam Center for Physics”

Salam’s prolific work ethic could be gauged from his ability to strike a perfect balance between his personal research interests and his desire to promote scientific knowledge in the developing world, Professor Duff noted. He had managed his responsibilities at the ICTP and in the advisory position with the Pakistani government while carrying forward his path-breaking research on theoretical physics’ age-old problem of the possibility of a unifying theory of all four fundamental forces of nature.

Professor Salam and his colleagues Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg had been awarded a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979 for their work on a unified theory of electromagnetic and weak forces of nature.

Responding to a question from the audience, Professor Duff said all experiments done by theoretical physicists ever since had been compatible with Salam and his colleague’s work. Their work had been a stepping stone in the right direction but the search for super unification of all of the four fundamental forces (weak and electromagnetic whose unity was worked upon by Salam and his colleagues as well as the strong and gravitational forces) still continued, he added. He said when he had been Professor Salam’s student at the Imperial College of London in 1969, the professor was just turning his attention to the study of the force of gravity.

Recalling his studies under Professor Salam’s supervision, he said the question assigned to him for his PhD thesis had emerged from a bet Professor Salam had made with King’s College Mathematician Hermann Bondi.

Professor Duff also highlighted some of Salam’s lesser known achievements in the world of natural sciences. A casual question about neutrinos posed to him during his PhD exam by Professor Rudolf Peierls had led to an exchange of divergent views between the arduous student and his teacher. Peierls and later Wolfgang Pauli, two greats of theoretical physics at that time, had not been completely satisfied with Salam’s response, deeming it in opposition to the accepted scientific views. However, Salam’s view had been proven correct in later studies.

Another one of his early achievement was the solution to the problem of overlapping divergences in the Quantum Field Theory.

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