Professor Salam’s Little Known Legacy
By Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui
(Professor Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s most distinguished scientist, passed away on November 21 fifteen years ago. Below, Pakistan Link Editor’s personal tribute to the eminent Pakistani)
Professor Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s most distinguished scientist, did us all proud when he won the Nobel Prize in 1979. Many of us were almost in a state of ecstasy when we saw him impeccably dressed up in a sherwani, shalwar and kulah receiving the coveted award from the Swedish King at the glittering Stockholm ceremony. Yet, not many of us are aware of his scientific legacy - the (United Nations) International Center for Theoretical Physics - that he founded and which is known today as the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics.
The Center made its debut in the historic city of Trieste, tucked away in the northeast of Italy on the Adriatic Sea. It stands majestically on tree-dotted hills resembling a sunlit sea-washed amphitheater, with the surrounding Carso plateau rated as one of the most enchanting landscapes in Europe.
Trieste used to be a small Roman town under the Caesars, an independent municipality in the Middle Ages, a flourishing international and trading center between the West and the East after 1700, and an Italian entity since 1918. It is a city of entrancing scenic attractions. More recently, it has come to play a leading role in a new enterprise: the promotion of physics, of the scientific ethos, in the science-deficient developing world.
More than 50,000 researchers from developed and developing countries have made their pilgrimage to the ICTP since its inception and have contributed to the mainstream of physics, besides enriching their own communities at home.
The discipline of physics, according to the late Professor Abdus Salam, “is an incredibly rich discipline ...a science of wealth creation par excellence” because of its implicit connection with high technology and materials exploitation. This view is widely shared.
“As perhaps the most truly international of all the sciences, physics has the opportunity and the responsibility to continue this flow of benefits to society, and, most important, to extend them to the very large fraction of the world’s burgeoning populations that have thus far - for whatever reason - been denied them,” D. Allan Bromley notes. (Bromley, Allan D., “The frontiers of physics and their roles in society”, Physics Scripta , Vol. 19, pp. 204-229, 1979).
The report “ Physics in Perspective ” (US National Academy of Science, Washington, DC) strengthens Salam and Bromley’s view: “Science is knowing. What man knows about inanimate nature is physics, or rather the most lasting and universal things that he knows make up physics. As he gains more knowledge, what would have appeared complicated or capricious can be seen as essentially simple and in a deep sense orderly. And, to understand how things work is to see how, within environmental constraints and the limitations of wisdom, better to accommodate nature to man and man to nature.”
But the ICTP was conceived by Salam not so much to create economic wealth in developing countries as to enrich their intellectual stock. “Salam’s strength is that he believes miracles are possible provided one goes out and helps their way,” Nigel Calder stated in 1967. Thus, Salam remained unruffled when his proposal for the creation of an international center for theoretical physics got a polite rebuff in UN circles. Some comments were particularly stinging: “Theoretical Physics is the Rolls Royce of sciences - the developing countries need only bullock carts.”
Reflecting on his sustained strivings to create the center, Salam later recalled: “People took it (proposal for ICTP) half-jokingly and many delegations abstained on the vote when it was approved for a preliminary study. I found out that the idea interested the poor countries. What I wanted to do was to give the poor a place of their own where they would not have to beg anybody. Why should not a bright youngster in Pakistan have the right to receive the same stimulating atmosphere as an Englishman or an American provided he deserves it?” Why should a developing country scientist be confronted with the cruel choice of either giving up physics or the country?
Salam’s unrelenting campaign, later ably supported by Italian professor Budinich, was eventually crowned with success. In 1962, the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) approved the creation of the ICTP.
“That was the most momentous day of my life,” Salam exuberantly declared. “I seldom smoke, but I must have smoked 50 cigarettes that day and I went through a kilo of grapes. At the end of the debate, 60 hands went up in favor - and we had won!”
In 1964, the ICTP opened its doors at Trieste. It was jointly sponsored by the IAEA and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and generously supported by the Italian government and the hospitable Triestines.
Today, the ICTP serves as an important point of convergence, a meeting place, for physicists of all nationalities. It welcomes scientists from Africa, Asia, North and South America, Europe and Australia. For East European physicists, ICTP is one of the only places in the world for effective collaboration with the West. Salam thus succeeded in demonstrating that various interactions of nations and cultures are no obstacle to the brotherhood of man in science. In the words of Professor John Ziman of Bristol University, the distinguished Pakistani acted as “a sort of one-man multinational corporation, busily transferring intellectual technology to the less developed countries of the world.”
Complimenting the visionary scientist, Nigel Calder observed that Salam was to astonish the “ablest men of his time and became a leader in theoretical physics.... He was one of the wise men entrusted by the United Nations with guiding the application of science and technology to the global war on poverty.”
No wonder with Salam at the helm, the ICTP saw a growing multiplicity in its programs. Gradually, coverage broadened from fundamental physics to encompass physics that could be more relevant to the needs of the developing countries: for instance, physics of materials and microprocessors, physics of energy, physics of fusion, physics of reactors, physics of solar and non-conventional energy, geophysics, biophysics, neurophysics, laser physics, physics of oceans and deserts, and systems analysis. But the Center did not commit the blunder (which is all too often committed in less-developed countries) of neglecting basic frontier physics, such as high-energy physics, astrophysics, quantum gravity, cosmology, atomic and nuclear physics, and mathematics.
Such a broadening of the program was made simply because there was not, and still is not, any other international institute responding to the scientific hunger of developing country physicists.
The effort proved rewarding. Ambassadors of various countries who drove from Vienna to Trieste in May 1986 were pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm and confidence among scientists working at ICTP. Some acknowledged their easy access to current literature; others spoke of the fruitful and intellectually stimulating discussions they shared with co-researchers; while some others mentioned a feeling of exhilaration in interacting with top-notchers in their field. A surprised ambassador exclaimed, “We are used to listening to pessimists and egocentrics when it comes to a dialogue with the scientific community. The ICTP mood is certainly different.”
Twice - during 1986 and 1988-89 - I had the privilege to render editorial services to the ICTP and the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) founded by Dr Salam to foster science in developing countries. Both the ICTP and the TWAS have succeeded in giving a singular fillip to Third World science.
According to Dr Julian Cehla-Flores, a biophysicist from Venezuela, the ICTP demonstrates “a successful model of international cooperation not tried before,” one which should be emulated in other fields of science, but on a regional basis, particularly in Third World settings. The transfer of information at ICTP, he affirmed, is quick, a false start is timely corrected, and the preprints of papers sent to thousands of research centers all over the world, are a single contribution to global research.
The floating population of scientists that passes through the ICTP produces results “comparable to the best centers of research in frontier sciences, particularly in high-energy physics, condensed matter physics, nuclear physics and plasma physics,” he said.
Thanks to Salam’s vision and enterprise, the developing world has also contributed to the developed world in the ICTP association. Some course directors from developing countries - brilliant academicians and men of erudition - have sharpened the perception of participants from developed countries. The ICTP, Dr Flores summed up, “has exceeded the expectations of the founding fathers.” True.
Dr Anis Alam, a physicist from Pakistan, described the ICTP as “a second home for physicists” where developing country scientists meet their peers from the developed world with “the minimum of restrictions.” To him, the Center is the “only place in the world” where the universal nature of science transcends geographical and ideological frontiers.
A Nigerian mathematician felt that “information exchange, focusing particularly on overviews of major thrust lines of scientific theories, novel developments, and new areas of concentration” are of especially high quality. The Center has been “the biggest boost to my endeavor to generate self-consistent fields for biological phenomena.”
Dr Thomas W. Kephart, a physicist from the US, described the ICTP as “a visionary enterprise now attaining many of its goals. The research performance at the Center and the conferences held are making a substantial contribution to international physics”.
Dr Kephart was convinced that the scientist who visits the Center “gains from both the scientific and cultural experience independently of whether he or she is from the East or West, North or South, or from a developed or developing country.”
In his view, the effectiveness of, and interaction between, scientists in the developed and developing countries, as with any other human interaction, demands effort by individuals. This effort is manifestly apparent at the Center and has resulted in many rewards for all. Its congenial and intellectual atmosphere provides opportunity, and “the scientists who come from all parts of the world are making the most of it,” he observed.
The ICTP created a stir when it emerged on the international scene in 1964. It has been on the march since. Thanks to the vision and enterprise of Professor Abdus Salam, the Center has testified that the “Rolls Royce” of physics, a pressing necessity of the developed as well as the developing countries, can be mastered by both. The ICTP has also demonstrated the promise and strength of developing country science. It stands as the unique legacy of a distinguished Pakistani - a legacy that every Pakistani should be proud of.
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