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Abdus Salam back in the spotlight

15 Aug 2018 Matin Durrani
Taken from the August 2018 issue of Physics World

Matin Durrani reviews Salam: the First ****** Nobel Laureate directed by Anand Kamalakar and produced by Zakir Thaver and Omar Vandal

Charismatic. Humane. Difficult. Impatient. Sensitive. Gorgeous. Bright. Dismissive. Charming.

These are just some of the descriptions given by colleagues and relatives of the Pakistani theoretical physicist Mohammad Abdus Salam in the wonderful and carefully researched feature-length documentary film, Salam. Salam was a unique individual, not just for the complexity of his character testified by the words above, but also because he was the first Muslim to win a science-related Nobel prize – and the first (and so far only) Pakistani ever to achieve that feat.

One might think that having shared the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg, for unifying the electromagnetic and weak forces of nature, Salam would be a hero in his homeland. A child prodigy born in a humble village in British India in 1926, he became one of the world’s greatest theorists who tackled some of the most fundamental questions in physics. And despite spending the bulk of his professional life overseas, Salam remained hugely attached to Pakistan, refusing citizenship of Britain and Italy – the two nations where he had largely been based.

Yet more than 20 years after his death in 1996 – his later life cruelly ravaged by a neurodegenerative disease – Salam remains poorly known and largely unrecognized in Pakistan. The reason why, this film argues, was his religious beliefs. Most Pakistanis are Sunnis but Salam was an Ahmadi, part of a minor Islamic movement founded in the late 19th century by the religious leader Mirzā Ghulām Ahmad (1835–1908).

Such was the opposition in Pakistan to the Ahmadis that in 1974 the country’s parliament declared them non-Muslims – heretics essentially – and the constitution was altered to reflect that fact. Attacks on Ahmadis increased and, a decade later, Pakistan’s then president, General Zia-ul Haq, even barred members of the sect from calling themselves Muslims. They were also forbidden from professing their creed in public or even letting their places of worship be described as mosques.

To many secular physicists, such matters might seem trifling. But the central message of this largely chronological account of Salam’s life is that Pakistan’s decision to effectively legislate against its own citizens and to outcast the Ahmadis profoundly affected him. As Salam wrote in his diary: “Declared non Muslim. Cannot cope.” Having previously been largely a “cultural Muslim”, Salam now saw his religious beliefs re-awakened.

Not that he had previously been irreligious. After arriving at the University of Cambridge in 1946 to begin his physics degree, Salam – we hear from one of his sons – was forced to dine on macaroni cheese every day. The only meat on offer at college in impoverished post-war Britain was Spam, and Salam refused to eat this pork-based product on religious principles. It was a deprivation for Salam, who had grown up as the favoured son in a family of 11, who was always served the best meat and never had to milk the cow or empty the toilet.

After completing his PhD in quantum electrodynamics at Cambridge in 1951, Salam returned home, taking up a teaching post at Government College Lahore. But lacking journals, colleagues or any proper scientific infrastructure in the fledgling Pakistan, which had become independent from Britain barely four years earlier, Salam realized he would have to go abroad again. “Either I must leave my country or leave physics,” we hear him say. “And with great anguish I chose to leave my country.”

Salam took up a professorship at Imperial College London. Neatly moustachioed with a three-piece suit bought at the upmarket tailor’s Gieves and Hawkes to whom he always stayed loyal, Salam was the archetypal foreign boy made good in the West. Chris Isham and Michael Duff from Imperial are among those who testify to his talents. Salam was driven: a full-on physicist who would work 15 hours a day. One imam at the London mosque that Salam attended even says the great man would take out a notebook during his sermons to scribble insights that came to him.

Still keen to give back to his country, however, Salam accepted a post as presidential science adviser in Pakistan. He also helped the country to develop a nuclear-weapon programme. Or did he? The film at this point turns murky, trapped in the politics of 1970s Pakistan. The government, it seems, wanted Salam for his scientific talents but didn’t want to admit it was relying on someone who was an Ahmadi. Later we see President Zia honouring Salam, yet we also hear Salam announcing we should get rid of nuclear weapons altogether. It’s a confusing picture that reminds me of Werner Heisenberg’s equally ambiguous involvement in Germany’s nuclear programme during the Second World War.

Containing an impressive roster of recorded interviews, the film has been a labour of love by producers Zakir Thaver and Omar Vandal

Matin Durrani

Containing an impressive roster of recorded interviews, the film has been a labour of love by producers Zakir Thaver and Omar Vandal, who began tracking down and discovering archive footage of Salam in 2004. It came properly to life in 2015 after the pair met New-York-based director Anand Kamalakar, who himself originally studied physics. The result is a moving and carefully crafted biopic that does full justice to Salam’s life and work. My only criticism is not knowing which interviews are freshly recorded and which the film-makers discovered on their travels.

The film also makes clear that Salam’s passion for physics didn’t make him the greatest family man. He would spend long periods holed up in Trieste in Italy, driving forward the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), which he had founded through sheer force of will in 1964 to help researchers from developing nations. Even when he was back at the family home in suburban London, work was key. In one of my favourite scenes, Salam’s elder son Ahmad takes us into his father’s study, describing how Abdus would sit for long hours alone, cross-legged in an armchair in the warm, dimly lit room, a cup of tea by his side, incense sticks burning, doing calculations as verses from the Koran were recited on a record player.

Few geniuses, in whatever walk of life, are straightforward, and that comes across most of all in a moving interview with Anne Gatti, Salam’s assistant at the ICTP. She had to deal at first hand with his volatile temperament and demands, revealing that all she got after one particular outburst was a plastic mug Salam picked up for her at Heathrow Airport. It was his way of saying sorry (without actually doing so). Social skills were not his forte.

Gatti also describes how she had to deal with Salam’s frequent falls as his disease took hold. Barely able to function, he cried throughout his 65th-birthday celebration and in his final years was devotedly cared for by one of his wives (he had two) at his then home in Oxford. Salam, the genius, had become a shell of who he once had been. The film ends, as it starts, in the graveyard where Salam is buried.

It is only then that I twig the film’s subtitle. The camera comes to rest on Salam’s name on the gravestone, above which is the epithet: “First ****** Nobel Laureate”. With a streak of white paint covering the offending word, what should be a cause for celebration – Salam’s status as a Muslim – has literally been airbrushed by someone from history. This film, I hope, will put him firmly back in the spotlight.

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