Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Abdus Salam: a birthday

Abdus Salam, the first Muslim and the first Pakistani Nobel prize winner, was born on January 29th, 1926. What was his main goal? Well, let me speak himself:

See also 35-minute interview with Abdus Salam (start with the last one and continue to the left; Salam superenthusiastically celebrates string theory from around 4:45 of the part 2/4; at the beginning of 3/4, Salam has a funny description of Edward Witten) and dozens of other videos.

As you can see, he had pretty much the same goals as other great and passionate theoretical physicists and he has made a substantial contribution towards this goal.

Family & short bio

His father was an educational bureaucrat in a poor rural district but learning and piety have had a long tradition in their family. I guess that you understand that one of the advantages of the Muslim background is that I don't have to describe the job of his mother in detail. ;-)

He was a stellar student and studied in Lahore, Pakistan and Cambridge, England - where they remember him as a great cook. He founded the school of theoretical physics in Trieste, Italy and finally he created a very lively group at Imperial College, London.

His PhD thesis already contained important results in Quantum Electrodynamics. At that time, he was already famous.

Back in Pakistan & beliefs

With a doctorate, he returned to Pakistan to teach in Punjab. But he was disappointed to find out that it was impossible to establish a powerful research group in that country. On the other hand, he was pretty influential as a policy advisor for their government.

Salam has been a devout believer in the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. If you don't know, this Ahmadiyya stuff was politically incorrect in Pakistan so the word "Muslim" was later erased from his grave and Salam's name couldn't appear on his own postage stamps.

Nevertheless, when he was alive, he was convinced that Islam and science could not be separated and he wanted the Muslims to become leaders in science. Even during the Nobel ceremony, Salam quoted some verses from Quran that apparently promote scientific curiosity, if you interpret them in a certain way.


Salam was one of the folks who proposed to describe neutrinos with two-component spinors and realized that parity violation inevitably follows.

More importantly, he constructed the electroweak theory with the right U(1) gauge group included in it and gave it its name: "electroweak". He shared the 1979 Nobel prize with Shelly Glashow and Steve Weinberg. The theory easily predicted weak neutral currents and W,Z bosons that were observed four years after their Nobel prize.

Salam always realized the important role of symmetry - especially unitary symmetry - in physics. This concept has led him to study grand unification and, more characteristically, to co-father the not-quite-grand-unified Pati-Salam models. He was among the first people to predict and calculate the proton decay rates. Salam has also contributed to the superfield & superspace description of supersymmetric theories.

He has dealt with renormalization of meson theories and helped to integrate gravity into effective field theories in the modern way - as just another tensor field. He was clearly a very modern particle physicist believing in a kind of religion that looks somewhat less modern to me.

Islam and science

Finally, I want to ask this question myself: is Islam compatible with science? If you need a binary answer, it must be Yes. And many of us know very smart and productive Muslim physicists. Salam's picture of a unified theory being identified with a part of Allah is arguably a coherent one. ;-)

On the other hand, I have some doubts whether Islam encourages one to go through the kind of critical thinking and comparisons of alternatives that are so essential at many points of the evolution of science. According to Islam, things must be in harmony and even if they are not, the believers are strongly pressed to pretend that they are.

That's a counterproductive pressure in about 50% of cases or so and it may slow science down. In my opinion, it would take at least millenia for the modern science to develop if the whole world believed in Islam. I might be wrong but at least, you should admit that the data from the history give a certain asymmetric boost to my statements.

Moreover, I guess that generic Muslims - one billion of people - wouldn't subscribe to Salam's understanding of the relationship between physics and faith.

See also Steven Weinberg on religion and a fresh interview with Sheldon Glashow where they talk about Abdus Salam, among many other topics.

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