A particular talent for maths

Simon Mitton on Abdus Salam, Nobel scientist and champion of underprivileged students

July 24, 2008

Abdus Salam became the first Nobel laureate from Pakistan and he was the first member of the Muslim faith to receive a Nobel prize in science. As a teenager, he demonstrated such talent in applied mathematics that he had a masters degree from the University of the Punjab by the age of 20.

In 1946, St John's College, Cambridge, awarded him a place to read mathematics, where he was immediately in the presence of the giants of physics. Fred Hoyle supervised him in applied mathematics, and they became lifelong colleagues. In his second year he attended Paul Dirac's lectures in quantum mechanics, an experience that shaped his decision about his future career.

As a research student in the Cavendish Laboratory working on quantum electrodynamics, Salam produced a breakthrough paper in his first year by taming the infinities that plagued the subject. This work established his international reputation overnight and won him a research fellowship at Princeton University.

Imperial College London appointed him to a chair in mathematics in 1957. From that time he concentrated on theoretical elementary particle physics, in which he either pioneered or was associated with all the important developments in this field, maintaining a constant and fertile flow of brilliant ideas.

By the 1960s, several particle physicists were attempting to make sense of the plethora of exotic particles then being discovered by particle accelerators. Strong nuclear interactions and quarks became the main focus of attention. Salam was one of the few theorists who worked on the weak interactions in which radioactive decay expels electrons from the nucleus. The electron is thus subject to both the weak force and the electromagnetic force, a situation that suggested to Salam that there should be a synthesis of electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force. His realisation of this, a unified force for which he coined the term "electroweak", led to his share of the Nobel prize in 1979, which also went to Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow.

In a typically generous gesture, Salam donated his $60,000 share of the prize to help fund young students from Muslim countries, and he beseeched his Islamic brethren in oil-rich states to be generous. Salam needed the funding for the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, where he had been director since 1964. The ICTP was in part his creation: a research centre for scientists from less-developed countries. His next baby was the Third World Academy of Sciences, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Gordon Fraser, a science writer who earned his own doctorate in Salam's group at Imperial, has produced a rich and varied biography. Because Salam ranged over so many fields, Fraser has wisely chosen to produce a collection of self-contained chapters organised around themes: Trieste, electroweak and so on.

In this sensitive account, Salam's contributions on the international scene shine out. He strongly believed in science as a force for good.

The "cosmic anger" in the book's title refers to Salam's fury at the injustice of a world where lack of opportunity can handicap the most gifted students, and his disgust at the decline of science within Islamic culture. The ICTP is his enduring monument.

Cosmic Anger: Abdus Salam - The First Muslim Nobel Scientist

By Gordon Fraser

Oxford University Press

320pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780199208463

Published 24 April 2008

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