(I got the idea to pen this blog after viewing a Facebook post about Abdus Salam from the official page of Nobel Prize Foundation. )

Dr. Abdus Salam, till date the only Noble laureate of Pakistan in science, is always considered as an influential scientific figure in twentieth century not only for his work in the field of particle physics but also as a science promoter. Salam finished his PhD from University of Cambridge in 1951 and returned to serve his motherland. It is the time when he was not only emerging to become one of the most brilliant and finest physicists of twentieth century with iconoclastic ideas but also started to become an advocate for the promotion of scientific knowledge, generally in the world and specially for the third-world countries. Story begins when Salam visited International Atomic Energy Agency as a member of Pakistani delegation and espoused it to build a true centre for scientific research and development in third-world countries. It was for the first time when Salam proposed the idea of The International Centre for Theoretical Physics which was finally founded in Trieste, Italy in 1964 and Salam became its founding director. ICTP was renamed to Abdus Salam ICTP in 1997 in the honor of Dr. Salam.

Despite of all the criticism and controversies (especially the prizes of peace and literature), since 1901, Nobel Prize is the world’s most prestigious award in hard sciences conferred to the persons who “made the most important ‘discovery’ or ‘invention’.” Till date, Pakistan has one and only Nobel Laureate in Sciences, Dr Abdus Salam, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 jointly with Sheldon Lee Glashow and Steven Weinberg “for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, including, inter alia, the prediction of the weak neutral current.”

Abdus Salam (center) is the first and only Pakistani to win a Nobel Prize in Science. He is pictured with Sheldon Lee Glashow (left) and Steven Weinberg (right) at the ceremony in Stockholm in 1979. (Credit: Getty Images)

Parity Violation and Missed Nobel Prize

I will not go into the details of why and how Salam missed his first Nobel Prize, but to get a very brief idea, let’s have a journey to 1956 [1].

In the early fifties, Salam started working on neutrinos, an elementary particle proposed by Pauli in 1930. Salam’s calculations led him to propose that in weak interactions, nature does not favor the symmetry of lift-right handedness and all neutrinos should be two component left-handed particles. This simple yet astonishing idea was not in agreement with one of the holy laws of physics, the law of conservation of parity. But before publishing it, Salam decided to discuss this with the Father of Neutrino, Wolfgang Pauli, with whom Salam had a bad experience in the past. Pauli was in Zurich at that time and was a firm believer that left-right symmetry cannot be broken in weak interactions at all. Salam headed towards CERN, Geneva, a journey which was going to be resulted in his biggest mistakes ever. He met Felix Villars at CERN and handed him his paper to give it to Pauli. Villars met Pauli on the very same day. In his Nobel Lecture [2], Salam said:

“He [Villars] returned the next day with a message from the Oracle; “Give my regards to my friend Salam and tell him to think of something better.””

Salam took his paper back but had to regret as in the same year, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang confirmed experimentally that parity violates in weak interactions. Both received the Nobel Prize in 1957 for their work. Salam disheartened and Pauli was befuddled. Pauli wrote:

“Now the first shock is over and I begin to collect myself again . . . On Monday 21st the mail brought me three experimental papers [about the discovery of parity violation] . . . the same morning I received two theoretical papers . . . . The latter was essential identical with the paper by Salam which I already received six to eight weeks ago. . . . . It is good we did not make a bet. It would have resulted in a heavy loss of money (which I cannot afford). I did make a fool of myself (which I can afford) – incidentally only in letters or orally and not in anything that was printed. But now the others have the right to laugh at me.”

Nobel Prize Nominations until 1966

As per rules of Nobel Foundation, nominations cannot be revealed until 50 years. Currently, the nomination database [3] has records until 1966. Database reveals that until 1966, Salam was nominated four times although he received the prize in 1979. Details of his nominations are as follows:

  • In 1958, Eugene P. Wigner nominated Abdus Salam as the fourth nominee along with Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Johannes Hans Daniel Jensen and Robert Hofstadter. Wigner further commented Maria Goeppert-Mayer sharing prize with J. H. D. Jensen as his first choice and R. Hofstadter as the second.
    Maria-Goeppert Mayer shared the prize of 1963 with J. Hans D. Jensen and Eugene Wigner while Robert Hofstadter is the joint winner of 1961 Nobel Prize in Physics with Rudolf Mössbauer.
  • In 1966, Salam was nominated three times.
    1. Sir George P. Thomson (the discoverer of wave properties of electron) nominated him as the sole nominee.
    2. Paul Taunton Matthews (one of his academic advisors) nominated him to share the Nobel Prize with Murray Gell-Mann.
    3. James Chadwick (the discoverer of neutron) also recommended Salam to share the Nobel Prize with Murray Gell-Mann.

Murray Gell-Mann received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1969 and Abdus Salam in 1979. But who knows how many times Salam was nominated for the Physics and Peace prizes until his death in 1996!

References

[1] Fraser, Gordon. Cosmic Anger: Abdus Salam – the First Muslim Nobel Scientist. Oxford University Press, 2012.

[2] Nomination Archive. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2020. Fri. 26 Jun 2020.
<https://www.nobelprize.org/nomination/archive/>

[3] Abdus Salam – Nobel Lecture. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2020. Thu. 16 Jul 2020.
<https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1979/salam/lecture/>

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