Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate helped develop the theoretical framework that led to the apparent discovery of the subatomic “God particle” last week, yet his legacy has been largely scorned in his homeland because of his religious affiliation.
Abdus Salam, who died in 1996, was once hailed as a national hero for his pioneering work in physics and work that guided the early stages of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Now his name is even stricken from school textbooks because he was a member of the Ahmadi sect that has been persecuted by the government and targeted by Taliban militants, who view them as heretics.
Their plight – along with that of Pakistan’s other religious minorities, such as Shiite Muslims, Christians and Hindus – has deepened in recent years as hard-line interpretations of Islam have gained ground and militants have stepped up attacks against groups they oppose. The majority of Pakistan’s citizens are Sunni Muslims.
Prof. Salam, a child prodigy born in 1926 , was co-winner in 1979 of the Nobel Prize for his work on the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, which theorizes how fundamental forces govern the overall dynamics of the universe.
He and the physicist with whom he shared the prize independently predicted the existence of a subatomic particle now called the Higgs boson, named after a British physicist who theorized that it endowed other particles with mass, said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani physicist who once worked with Prof. Salam.
Physicists in Switzerland stoked worldwide excitement last week when they announced they have all but proven the particle’s existence.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Prof. Salam wielded significant influence in Pakistan as the chief scientific adviser to the president, helping to set up the country’s space agency and institute for nuclear science and technology. But his life, along with the fate of the three million other Ahmadis in Pakistan, drastically changed in 1974 when parliament amended the constitution to declare that members of the sect were not considered Muslims under Pakistani law.
Prof. Salam resigned from his government post in protest of the 1974 constitutional amendment and eventually moved to Europe to pursue his work. In Italy, he created a centre for theoretical physics to help physicists from the developing world.
Despite his achievements, his appears in few textbooks and is rarely mentioned by Pakistani leaders or the media. By contrast, fellow Pakistani physicist A.Q. Khan, who played a key role in developing the country’s nuclear bomb and later confessed to spreading nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya, is considered a national hero. Mr. Khan is a Muslim.
After his death in 1996 in Oxford, England, Prof. Salam’s body was returned to Pakistan and was buried under a gravestone that read “First Muslim Nobel Laureate.” But a local magistrate, according to Prof. Hoodbhoy, ordered the word “Muslim” to be erased.