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ABDUS SALAM – the Physicist and the Man

Dr. Mujahid Kamran

Abdus Salam was a man with a vision. Two passions dominated his life – a hunger for creating and acquiring knowledge at the highest level, and a burning desire to see the developing world stand up on its feet through cultivation of knowledge. He was hemmed between two worlds – on the one hand he wanted to fire the dormant South, the disease ridden world of the poor, the ignorant, and the sluggish with a thirst for knowledge; on the other hand, he kept prodding the conscience of the relevant sections of the North, the world of great scientists and narrow minded politicians, of idealists and giant vested interests, of plenty and power. He once onveyed his torment to RobertWalgate by bursting out with these lines of Omar Khayyam.

Ah love! could thou and I with fate conspire To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire Would we not shatter it to bits – and then Remould it nearer to the heart’s desire.

Salam as a Physicist: Given Salam’s brilliance, his first passion enabled him to join the ranks of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century. Salam’s distinguishing feature as a physicist was his uncanny knack for scenting out, from the plethora of confusing possibilities, the one idea that turns out to matter and leads to the deepest insight into the problem. It was a combination of this gift with his burning commitment that enabled him to stay, for four decades, in the forefront of research in High Energy Physics, an area in which even the most brilliant minds usually fade out after shinning for a few years.

In 1964, the journal Nature wrote of him: There are very few physicists in the world who have maintained such a constant and fertile flow of brilliant ideas as Abdus Salam has achieved during the past thirteen years.

This sentence remained true for another three decades. In almost every significant development in High Energy Physics in the period 1950-1992 (he was forced by illness to give up working in 1993), be it renormalisation, elucidation of the behavior of the weak nuclear force, unitary symmetry, electro-weak unification, supersymmetry, string theory or grand unification, Salam played a significant role.

It has been said of Salam’s scientific acumen that “His nose always points in the right direction”. (The late Professor M.S.K. Razmi, to whom I owe this sentence could not recall whether it had been uttered by Glashow or someone else). In summer 1990 I asked Salam what his “nose” told him about current ideas in his field. He said there was “definitely something” in supersymmetry. “It will always be there but may be at very high energies” he told me.
Mike Duff narrates that in the period 1969-72, when he was a graduate student at Imperial the Veneziano model was a hot topic. This model was used for strong nuclear interactions. He writes:

I distinctly remember Salam remarking on the apparent similarity between the mass and angular momentum of a Regge trajectory and that of an extreme black hole. Nowadays, of course, string theorists would juxtapose black holes and Regge slopes without batting an eyelid but to suggest that black holes could behave as elementary particles in the late sixties was considered preposterous by minds lesser than Salam.

Salam’s student Delbourgo has made an interesting observation about Salam’s ability to guess what would be right without having worked out the mathematics at all.
He writes: When standing up to argue with him on one of the finer points of the problem you had to be pretty darn sure of what you said because he had a wonderful intuition about the answer and was much more often right than wrong. When out of desperation you would confront him and ask him how he could be so certain…

To be continued

The writer is the vice chancellor of University of South Asia and he can be reached at mujahid_m51@yahoo.com or mujahid.kamran@gmail.com

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