Pakistan’s unsung genius

Sarah Alam Malik blogging for DAWN:

Perhaps the last major breakthrough in the world of particle physics came in the 1960s when Dr Abdus Salam, a Pakistani physicist, proposed a mathematical model that unified two of the four fundamental forces in nature and described them as different aspects of a single force. The unification of two forces into a single theory, known as the electroweak theory, was a major stepping stone and earned Dr Abdus Salam, Sheldon Lee Glashow and Steven Weinberg the Nobel Prize in 1979.

Decades later, when studying particle physics at Oxford University, I came across Dr Salam’s name for the first time. I may not have fully appreciated the consequences of the theory he proposed and the reason why he was awarded the Nobel Prize, but I knew it was important and it gave me immense pride. I wanted to tell everyone and anyone that the Salam in the Glashow-Weinberg-Salam Theory was Pakistani. That Pakistan, a third-world country was capable of producing great scientists and contributing to the advancement of science on an international level. I knew this was a rare and special moment. It isn’t often that Pakistanis are awarded the Nobel Prize.

It was not until I started my PhD that I realised the significance of Dr Salam’s contribution. Since the theoretical model he postulated was central to my research, almost an entire chapter of my thesis is dedicated to it. Dr Salam’s electroweak theory predicted the existence of a set of particles called the W and Z bosons (subatomic particles). Indeed, the subsequent discovery of these particles in 1982 was a great triumph for the theory! I earned my PhD thesis by measuring with utmost precision the properties of the W bosons predicted by Dr Salam’s theory. In the course of communicating my research to people, it was impossible to omit his name. For a country that doesn’t have a long list of notable figures to celebrate, I found it surprising that Dr Salam was not a household name. For a man who put Pakistan on the world map and etched his country’s name into scientific history, he was astonishingly downplayed.

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