Salam: The First ****** Nobel Laureate review — A compelling portrait of an extraordinary physicist
Mohammad Abdus Salam was that rare being: a man of science whose thought was deeply rooted in his faith.
In case you’re curious about the rather strange looking/sounding title of the film being reviewed, credit is due to the powers that be in Pakistan and governments’ enduring love for censorship and craven populism. Mohammad Abdus Salam was that rare being: a man of science whose thought was deeply rooted in his faith. A man who claimed to be visited by pathbreaking ideas and visions as he sat in the comforting silence of the mosque. A physicist who worked while an audio recording of the Quran played in the background. Salam was Pakistan’s first (and only) Nobel Laureate. He wore a sherwani and a turban to the ceremony in 1979, ‘looking like a prince among penguins’, according to one of his colleagues. The government of Pakistan rewarded him by declaring him and those of his Ahmadiyya faith non-Muslims and painting over the word ‘Muslim’ from his gravestone, yielding the odd title of this film.
Anand Kamalakar’s 75-minute documentary presents the portrait of a strong-willed individual whose life was closely tied with the history of his nation. Born in 1926 at Jhang, a tiny village in British colonised India, the visionary particle physicist wouldn’t see electric light until he came to study in Lahore. The preternaturally gifted young man would soon leave for Cambridge to continue his higher education, become a star student and win prizes for one brilliant science paper after another. Meanwhile, British India was split in two, and when Salam returned to Lahore to teach at the Government College in 1951, he stepped foot in the newly minted nation of Pakistan.
The film presents us with a man whose mind was perpetually brimming with ideas. Most of them were filigreed nonsense, but a select few possessed the potential to change the course of physics. Salam reminisces the time he sent a paper on parity violation to Wolfgang Pauli, a celebrated physicist. Pauli dismissed his ideas and asked him to write back with something better next time. Some time later, a couple of physicists won the Nobel for work on the same idea, prompting a disappointed Salam to warn young people against trusting grand old men and publishing their ideas instead. Salam was eventually awarded the Nobel in 1979, for his effort in unifying the fundamental forces of nature. He proved the unification of the weak nuclear and electromagnetic forces into one another.
The belief in unity grew from Salam’s deep study of Islam and the idea of a single supreme being. He pursued simplicity in nature’s laws and his intuitive mind created new avenues in theoretical physics. But his life wasn’t restricted to intellectual pursuit. He professed faith in the power of organisational abilities. As some of his colleagues admit in the film, he could use people to achieve his aims. Salam grasped the importance of nuclear energy in the building of Pakistan. He left no stone unturned in creating the infrastructure necessary for it. The documentary doesn’t delve deep enough into the machinations of his relationship with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Pakistani premier, and the development of the nuclear bomb. But Salam was more than aware of governments’ parasitic need to exploit scientific breakthroughs towards hazardous ends and the age old reliance on the barter system. The film doesn’t benefit by staying nebulous on the subject. It sets out to shed light on the life of a deeply conflicted mind. The meticulous nature of the research seems to run counter to the handling of this particular period in Salam’s life, thereby mitigating the film’s impact.
Bhutto would soon turn the tables on Salam, after caving in to pressure from the extremist Muslims. On 7 September 1974, Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim in Pakistan by a constitutional amendment, suddenly rendering Salam, and his fellow Ahmadis, second class citizens in their own country. It would be the beginning of a dark period in Pakistani history. The country would turn inward, becoming more conservative by the day, eventually resulting in military rule under General Zia-ul Haq and the rise of Jamaat-e-Islami’s brand of religious fanaticism. Salam resigned from his post as scientific adviser and left Pakistan in protest.
By all accounts, Salam began to assert his Muslim identity all the more after this. His family muses at length over this gloomy time in his life. It isn’t difficult to understand the betrayal he must have felt at the hands of a country he wished to see prosper. He’d been alienated from his people, severed from his land and declared a lesser person by official decree. In response, Salam turned to the propagation of science as a tool of enlightenment. He there himself into setting up the International Centre for Theoretical Physics at Trieste, Italy. His ambition was to provide bright minds from developing countries the patronage and exposure to chart new paths in physics. At the expense of his scientific work, and his family, he threw himself into creating an institution that created the science of the future.
The tireless workaholic would eventually be slowed down by a neuro-generative disorder. Nevertheless, he’d continue to work at his beloved institute. Salam was aware of the magnitude of his symbolic presence in the Islamic world. He wanted Muslim youth across the world to come forward and belie all the stereotypes about them by blazing new trails. Despite the antagonism he faced from the extremists in Pakistan, he never abandoned his people. And as the thousands of people who attended his funeral procession in Pakistan show, they never abandoned him. Kamalkar’s film is a standard documentary on the life of an extraordinarily gifted and ambitious man. Salam lived in perpetual exile and he now rests in a country whose government turned its back on him. His memory has been erased from the schoolbooks and students have a hard time answering questions about his life and work. His identity has been wiped off the gravestone itself. But his ideas await the seekers of truth who will eventually learn of his tremendous contribution to mankind and slowly but surely penetrate the iron curtain of ignorance that’s been hung over the Pakistani youth.
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