A Tale of Two Plaques

In November, the English Heritage organization placed a small but significant blue plaque on a house in Putney, South London. This marks the house as an English Heritage site, where a historical figure of repute lived. Visitors to London can find over 950 of these plaques everywhere, indicating the residences of Prime Ministers, poets, philanthropists and various other luminaries, both men and women. 

This particular plaque in Putney read “Physicist, Nobel Laureate, and champion of science in developing countries lived here.” It honors none other than Pakistan’s own theoretical physicist Professor Abdus Salam, who lived in London from 1957 until his death in 1996. His scientific achievements are too numerous to list here, the most significant of which was the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979. He won this with his fellow researchers Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for their work on the electroweak unification theory.

The controversy surrounding Professor Salam’s religious affiliation is known to all. A member of the Ahmedi sect, Cambridge-educated Professor Salam served as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Scientific Advisor for thirteen years starting in 1961, during which time he helped Pakistan develop its peaceful nuclear capacity. In 1974, Bhutto declared Ahmedis as non-Muslims, and Professor Salam resigned from his post and left the country permanently. 

Pakistan held more disappointments for him after this. In 1987, when he was being considered for the head of UNESCO, Pakistan did not support his nomination and he was not selected for the post. Even today, Professor Salam can be referred to as a Nobel Laureate and a Pakistani, but not a Muslim. Yet Professor Salam, who headed the mathematics department at Government College Lahore and at the University of Punjab, was the founding director of SUPARCO, and established the Theoretical Physics Group in the PAEC, was always cognizant of his identity as a Pakistani and a Muslim, even after his departure from the nation and his expulsion from the religion. 

A film about his life, a documentary called Salam – The First ***** Nobel Laureate (the ***** refers to the defacement of Salam’s tombstone, on which the word “Muslim” was scratched out), reveals his famous diary entry on September 7, 1974: “Declared non-Muslim, cannot cope.” The makers of the film theorize that his exile from Pakistan made him even more sensitive to his status as a person from the “third world”. Zainab Imam, in her review of the documentary, writes: “To Salam, the 1974 amendment to the constitution displaced not only his identity but the vantage point from which he saw a world that couldn’t quite place him: a third worlder among Westerners, a devoutly religious yet avowedly scientific man among atheists.”

This psychological trauma in part spurred Professor Salam to become a “champion of science in the developing world.” He could have spurned his background and heritage, especially after such a terrible rejection by the country of his birth. Instead, he did what people of tremendous character do when they are faced with opposition: he used the adversity as a stepladder to transcend his personal disappointment and grief, wielding his considerable influence and acclaim to nurture future scientists from similar cultural and geopolitical backgrounds as his own. 

After the rupture between Professor Salam and the nation of Pakistan (Zainab Imam calls this “Bhutto’s political calculus”), both parties found a way to maintain ties behind the scenes. Professor Salam set up the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy; its mission is to advance scientific achievement in developing nations. Over 2000 scientists from Pakistan have visited Trieste since 1970, several have won science prizes at the institute, and official delegations from the Pakistan Ministry of Science and Technology, COMSATS, and the Pakistani Consulate visit the Centre frequently.

In Pakistan, the ITCP supported the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute and Quaid-e-Azam University’s physics department, which was renamed after him in 2016. There is now an Abdus Salam chair in Physics at Government College Lahore. Professor Salam also set up the International Nathiagali Summer College back in 1974, which continues to hold scientific meetings every year. Among his many international awards, Professor Salam won the Nishan-e-Imtiaz in 1979 for his contributions to Pakistan’s scientific field. Beyond his death, he continues to shape young scientists’ minds in his own country and all over the world. 

That our officials and VIPs, scientists and diplomats maintain ties with the ICTP suggests that Pakistan would like to reclaim Professor Salam’s legacy, but because of religious pressure they cannot do it openly or whole-heartedly. Meanwhile, Professor Salam lies buried in Rabwah rather than in the United Kingdom, showing his deep love for his country despite his vilification here. And a green hand-lettered plaque placed by the Punjab Archeology Department on a small brick house in a muddy street in Jhang reads: “National Monument: Birth place of Nobel Laureate Prof Abdus Salam, Protected in June 1981 under Antiquities Act 1975.”