The question of Abdus Salam ‘deserving’ his Nobel

Peter Woit has blogged about an oral history interview with theoretical physicist Sheldon Glashow published in 2020 by the American Institute of Physics. (They have a great oral history of physics series you should check out if you’re interested.) Woit zeroed in on a portion in which Glashow talks about his faltering friendship with Steven Weinberg and his issues with Abdus Salam’s nomination for the physics Nobel Prize.

Glashow, Weinberg and Salam together won this prize in 1979, for their work on the work on electroweak theory, which describes the behaviour of two fundamental forces, the electromagnetic force and the weak force. Glashow recalls that his and Weinberg’s friendship – having studied and worked together for many years – deteriorated in the 1970s, a time in which both scientists were aware that they were due a Nobel Prize. According to Glashow, however, Weinberg wanted the prize to be awarded only to himself and Salam.

This is presumably because of how the prize-winning work came to be: with Glashow’s mathematical-physical model published in 1960, Weinberg building on it seven years later, with Salam’s two relevant papers appeared a couple years after Glashow’s paper and a year after Weinberg’s. Glashow recalls that Salam’s work was not original, that each of his two papers respectively echoed findings already published in Glashow’s and Weinberg’s papers. Instead, Glashow continues, Salam received the Nobel Prize probably because he had encouraged his peers and his colleagues to nominate him a very large number of times and because he set up the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste.

This impression, of Salam being undeserving from a contribution-to-physics point of view in Glashow’s telling, is very at odds with the impression of Salam based on reading letters and comments by Weinberg and Pervez Hoodbhoy and by watching the documentary Salam – The First ****** Nobel Laureate.

The topic of Salam being a Nobel laureate was never uncomplicated, to begin with: he was an Ahmadi Muslim who enjoyed the Pakistan government’s support until he didn’t, when he was forced to flee the country; his intentions with the ICTP – to give scholars from developing countries a way to study physics without having to contend with often-crippling resource constrains – were also noble. Hoodbhoy has also written about the significance of Salam’s work as a physicist and the tragedy of his name and the memories of his contributions having been erased from all the prominent research centres in Pakistan.

Finally, one of Salam’s nominees for a Nobel Prize was the notable British physicist and Nobel laureate Paul A.M. Dirac, and it seems strange that Dirac would endorse Salam if he didn’t believe Salam’s work deserved it.

Bearing these facts in mind, Glashow’s contention appears to be limited to the originality of Salam’s work. But to my mind, even if Salam’s work was really derivative, it was at par with that of Glashow and Weinberg. More importantly, while I believe the Nobel Prizes deserve to be abrogated, the prize-giving committee did more good than it might have realised by including Salam among its winners: in the words of Weinberg, “Salam sacrificed a lot of possible scientific productivity by taking on that responsibility [to set up ICTP]. It’s a sacrifice I would not make.”

Glashow may not feel very well about Salam’s inclusion for the 1979 prize and the Nobel Prizes as we know are only happy to overlook anything other than the scientific work itself, but if the committee really screwed up, then they screwed up to do a good thing.

Then again, even though Glashow wasn’t alone (he was joined by Martinus J.G. Veltman on his opinions against Salam), the physicists’ community at large doesn’t share his views. Glashow also cites an infamous 2014 paper by Norman Dombey, in which Dombey concluded that Salam didn’t deserve his share of the prize, but the paper’s reputation itself is iffy at best.

In fact, this is all ultimately a pointless debate: there are just too many people who deserve a Nobel Prize but don’t win it while a deeper dive into the modern history of physics should reveal a near-constant stream of complaints against Nobel laureates and their work by their peers. It should be clear today that both winning a prize and not winning a prize ought to mean nothing to the practice of science.

The other remarkable thing about Glashow’s comments in the interview (as cited by Woit) is what I like to think of as the seemingly eternal relevance of Brian Keating’s change of mind. Brian Keating is an astrophysicist who was at the forefront of the infamous announcement that his team had discovered evidence of cosmic inflation, an epoch of the early universe in which it is believed to have expanded suddenly and greatly, in March 2014. There were many problems leading up to the announcement but there was little doubt at the time, and Keating also admitted later, that its rapidity was motivated by the temptation to secure a Nobel Prize.

Many journalists, scientists and others observers of the practice of science routinely and significantly underestimate the effect the Nobel Prizes exert on scientific research. The prospect of winning the prize for supposedly discovering evidence of cosmic inflation caused Keating et al. to not wait for additional, confirmatory data before making their announcement. When such data did arrive, from the Planck telescope collaboration, Keating et al. suffered for it with their reputation and prospects.

Similarly, Weinberg and Glashow fell out because, according to Glashow, Weinberg didn’t wish Glashow to give a talk in 1979 discussing possible alternatives to the work of Weinberg and Salam because Weinberg thought doing such a thing would undermine his and Salam’s chances of being awarded a Nobel Prize. Eventually it didn’t, but that’s beside the point: this little episode in history is as good an illustration as any of how the Nobel Prizes and their implied promises of laurels and prestige render otherwise smart scientists insecure, petty and elbows-out competitive – in exchange for sustaining an absurd and unjust picture of the scientific enterprise.

All of this goes obviously against the spirit of science.