Analysis Science

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.

Sheldon Glashow in January 2020. Credit: Lumidek, public domain

Let me tell you that 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 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 nothing less than 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.”

Steven Weinberg (1933-2021) in December 2014. Credit: Betsythedevine/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

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. Ultimately, in fact, this is all just 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, at least in an ideal sense.

Analysis Culture Science

The ignoble president and the Nobel Prize

What is the collective noun for a group of Nobel laureates? I’m considering ballast. A ballast of Nobel laureates is appealing because these people, especially if they are all white and male, often tend to take themselves too seriously and are taken so by others as well. I’m not saying they tend to say meaningless things but only that they – and we, speaking generally – overestimate the import of their words, mistaking them for substance when more often than not they are just air (often as a result of being dragged into, or being compelled to comment on, matters in which they may not have been involved if they hadn’t received Nobel Prizes).

On September 7, Physics World reported that 81 Nobel laureates had “voiced their support” for Joe Biden ahead of the impending presidential elections in the US. This move, so to speak, echoed a letter authored by a group of 150 or so well-known Indian scientists ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in India. The Indian group had asked that the people “vote wisely”, principally in order to protect constitutional safeguards and against those who violated or would abrogate them. This was sage advice – even though the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose actions and policies in its first term in power from 2014 to 2019 had dismissed just this wisdom, won a thumping majority – but it was jarring on one count.

The letter’s authors taken together constituted an important subset of the national community of scientists – a community that had stayed largely silent through a spate of horrific incidents of violence, harassment and subversion of institutions and people alike for five years or so. Though it was courageous to have spoken up at a crucial moment (even if the letter didn’t directly name the party or those political candidates whose ideologies were evidently opposed to the ethos the letter’s authors advocated), there was a nagging feeling that perhaps it was too little too late. And in a way, it was.

In addition, the advantages of scientists grouping together as such wasn’t clear – if only to me. Scientists are members of society just as much as most other people are. While it makes sense to come together as scientists, especially as scientists in the same field, to oppose or support an idea that defies or benefits that field, to accumulate as scientists to offer advice on a matter that they haven’t spoken up about before and on which they have as much authority as non-scientists sounds like a plea – apart from broadcasting their support for Biden or saying “vote wisely” or whatever – to defer to their especial authority as scientists, in particular as ‘leading scientists’, as they say, or as Nobel laureates, with emphases on the ‘leading’ and ‘Nobel’.

Otherwise, what does a group of scientists really mean? The Nobel laureates who have spoken up now in favour of Biden offer a similarly confusing proposition. The citizens of a democratic country coming together to vote means they are governing themselves. They are engaging in a specifically defined activity part of a suite of processes the traversal of which gives rise to effective, politically legitimate governments. The employees of a factory coming together to protest their wages (while forsaking them) means they are striving to uphold their rights as labourers. Twenty-two people coming onto a large, grassy field to kick one ball around according to a prefixed and predetermined rule-set means they are playing football. What does a group of Nobel laureates coming together to endorse a presidential candidate mean – other than the moment being crafted to attract the press’s attention?

The fact of their being Nobel laureates does not qualify their endorsement for any different or higher recognition than, say, the endorsement of a businessperson, a badminton champion or a poet, or in fact the many, many scientists who are being good in ways that no award can measure. (Whether the laureates themselves aspire to such relevance is moot.) And this is true from both the electoral and civilian perspectives: neither Trump nor Modi are going to rue the lack of scientists’ support if only because, ironically, the scientists would rather wait to organise among themselves on rare occasions instead of speaking up as often as is necessary or even diffuse into the superseding community of ‘protestors’ to oppose injustice. Just as much as a biologist needs to have studied evolution as well as have successfully demonstrated their proficiency in order to be acknowledged as an expert on evolution – so that they may then dispense thoughts and ideas on the topic that could be taken seriously – good political guidance needs to emerge from a similar enterprise, grounded in knowledge of public affairs and civic engagement.

This also means speaking up once in a while can only influence one’s audience so much. Generic appeals to “vote wisely” are well-taken but, considered in context, their potential to change minds is bound to be awfully finite, or even patronising, depending on the context. For example, Physics World quoted Bill Foster, the Democratic representative from Illinois, reportedly the “only physicist in Congress” and the person who canvassed the laureates, saying:

[Asking the laureates to back Biden] was like pushing at an open door. … there was a lot of enthusiasm because of the difference [the laureates] perceive in the scientific understanding [between Biden and Trump]. … They recognise the harm being done by ignoring science in public policy. And it’s not only science; it’s logic and integrity. The scientific community wants to get to a situation in which they trust people’s word. … The only reason we’re in a position to develop vaccines rapidly is decades of scientific research. This may be an opportunity for the scientific community to remind everyone about long-term investment in science.

Foster’s effort is clearly aimed at hitting the limelight – which it did; getting 81 Nobel laureates is more glamorous than getting 81 well-regarded principal investigators, scientist-communicators, lecturers or postdocs. However, the extent to which such an exercise will be able to sway public opinion is hard to say. I personally can’t imagine, assuming for a moment that we are all Americans as well, that I, my father (a libertarian of sorts), my mother (a devout Hindu), one of her brothers (a staunch BJP supporter) or my father’s brother-in-law (a seemingly committed centrist) would ever think, “Oh, a Nobel laureate has vouched for Biden (or a group of scientists have recommended against Narendra Modi). I should think about whether or not I wish to vote for him (or not for the other).”

And while I don’t presume to know why each of these laureates endorsed Biden’s candidature, their combined support – as compiled on Foster’s initiative – together with Foster’s words indicate that the community of laureates is simply looking out for itself, just as much as every other community is, but in its case wielding the COVID-19 pandemic and its ‘pre-approval’ of anything scientific to press its point that Trump, in its view, is not fit to be president. It is easy to agree that Trump should go but impossible to agree that he must go because science is not in charge! Science is not supposed to be in charge; this – whether the US or India – is a democracy, not a scientocracy, and the government constituted by the performance of democratic rights and responsibilities must not function to the exclusion of disciplines, considerations or even knowledge other than those with a scientific basis. The Physics World article also quotes Carol Greider, a 2009 medicine laureate, thus:

[She] asserted that elected leaders “should be making decisions based on facts and science,” adding that she “strongly endorses” Biden, in particular because of his “commitment to putting public health professionals, not politicians, back in charge”.

This is a dangerously sweeping statement. The pandemic has temporarily legitimised a heightened alertness to the prescriptions of science, at pain of death in many cases, but it can be no excuse – even if pandemics are expected to become more common and/or more dangerous – to substitute broad-based decision-making to that based only on “facts and science”, nor to substitute politicians with public health professionals as the people in charge. In fact, and ultimately, if the laureates’ endorsement this year parallels Greider’s thoughts, it would seem there is an opinion among some of these scientists that “facts and science” ought to constitute the foundations of all political decision-making. Many Indian scientists are already of this view.

The social scientist Prakash Kashwan discussed a similar issue in the context of climate geoengineering in The Wire in December 2018; his conclusions, outlined in the short excerpt below, apply just as well to the pandemic:

Decisions about which unresolved questions of geoengineering deserve public investment can’t be left only to the scientists and policymakers. The community of climate engineering scientists tends to frame geoengineering in certain ways over other equally valid alternatives. This includes considering the global average surface temperature as the central climate impact indicator and ignoring vested interests linked to capital-intensive geoengineering infrastructure. This could bias future R&D trajectories in this area. And these priorities, together with the assessments produced by eminent scientific bodies, have contributed to the rise of a de facto form of governance. In other words, some ‘high-level’ scientific pronouncements have assumed stewardship of climate geoengineering in the absence of other agents. Such technocratic modes of governance don’t enjoy broad-based social or political legitimacy.

Yes, pseudoscience during the pandemic is bad; denying the reality of climate change is bad. But speaking out solely against these ills – in much the same way the ‘Marches for Science’ in India have seemed to do, by drawing scientists out onto streets to (rightfully) demand better pay for scientists and more respect for scientific prescriptions even as the community of scientists has not featured prominently in protests against other excesses by the Government of India, especially the persecution of Muslims and Dalits – suggests a refusal to see oneself as citizen first, as being committed to the accomplishment of one’s goals as a scientist ahead of being concerned with direr issues that predominantly affect the minority or, more worryingly, to see in science alone the solutions to all of our social ills. (Young scientists have been the exception by far.)

Disabusing those who cling to this view and persuading them of the reality that their authority is a dream-state maintained by science’s privileged relationship with the modern state and capitalism’s exploitative relationship with the scientific enterprise is a monumental task, requiring decades of sustained interrogation, dialogue and reflection. Thankfully, we have a cheap and very-short-term substitute in our midst for now: on September 9, news reports emerged that a Norwegian politician named Christian Tybring-Gjedde had nominated Trump for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, allegedly for brokering the peace agreement between Israel and the UAE. I really hope the prize-awarding committee takes the nomination seriously and that Trump receives the prize. Irrespective of what consequences such an event will have on American politics, it will be a golden opportunity for the world – and especially India – to see that the Nobel Prizes are a deeply human and therefore uniquely flawed enterprise, as much as any other award or recognition, that they are capable of being wrong or even just plain stupid.

The Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam did the Nobel Prizes a big favour when he received the physics prize in 1979. But by and large, motivated by Henry Kissinger winning the peace prize six years earlier and Barack Obama doing so in 2009, the popular perception of these prizes has only become increasingly irredeemable since. I have full confidence in His Laureateship Donald J. Trump being able to tear down this false edifice – by winning it, and then endorsing himself.

Culture Science

Review: ‘Salam – The First ****** Nobel Laureate’ (2018)

Awards are elevated by their winners. For all of the Nobel Prizes’ flaws and shortcomings, they are redeemed by what its laureates choose to do with them. To this end, the Pakistani physicist and activist Abdus Salam (1926-1996) elevates the prize a great deal.

Salam – The First ****** Nobel Laureate is a documentary on Netflix about Salam’s life and work. The stars in the title stand for ‘Muslim’. The label has been censored because Salam belonged to the Ahmadiya sect, whose members are forbidden by law in Pakistan to call themselves Muslims.

After riots against this sect broke out in Lahore in 1953, Salam was forced to leave Pakistan, and he settled in the UK. His departure weighed heavily on him even though he could do very little to prevent it. He would return only in the early 1970s to assist Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with building Pakistan’s first nuclear bomb. However, Bhutto would soon let the Pakistani government legislate against the Ahmadiya sect to appease his supporters. It’s not clear what surprised Salam more: the timing of India’s underground nuclear test or the loss of Bhutto’s support, both within months of each other, that had demoted him to a second-class citizen in his home country.

In response, Salam became more radical and reasserted his Muslim identity with more vehemence than he had before. He resigned from his position as scientific advisor to the president of Pakistan, took a break from physics and focused his efforts on protesting the construction of nuclear weapons everywhere.

It makes sense to think that he was involved. Someone will know. Whether we will ever get convincing evidence… who knows? If the Ahmadiyyas had not been declared a heretical sect, we might have found out by now. Now it is in no one’s interest to say he was involved – either his side or the government’s side. “We did it on our own, you know. We didn’t need him.”

Tariq Ali

Whether or not it makes sense, Salam himself believed he wouldn’t have solved the problems he did that won him the Nobel Prize if he hadn’t identified as Muslim.

If you’re a particle physicist, you would like to have just one fundamental force and not four. … If you’re a Muslim particle physicist, of course you’ll believe in this very, very strongly, because unity is an idea which is very attractive to you, culturally. I would never have started to work on the subject if I was not a Muslim.

Abdus Salam

This conviction unified at least in his mind the effects of the scientific, cultural and political forces acting on him: to use science as a means to inspire the Pakistani youth, and Muslim youth in general, to shed their inferiority complex, and his own longstanding desire to do something for Pakistan. His idea of success included the creation of more Muslim scientists and their presence in the ranks of the world’s best.

[Weinberg] How proud he was, he said, to be the first Muslim Nobel laureate. … [Isham] He was very aware of himself as coming from Pakistan, a Muslim. Salam was very ambitious. That’s why I think he worked so hard. You couldn’t really work for 15 hours a day unless you had something driving you, really. His work always hadn’t been appreciated, shall we say, by the Western world. He was different, he looked different. And maybe that also was the reason why he was so keen to get the Nobel Prize, to show them that … to be a Pakistani or a Muslim didn’t mean that you were inferior, that you were as good as anybody else.

The documentary isn’t much concerned with Salam’s work as a physicist, and for that I’m grateful because the film instead offers a view of his life that his identity as a figure of science often sidelines. By examining Pakistan’s choices through Salam’s eyes, we get a glimpse of a prominent scientist’s political and religious views as well – something that so many of us have become more reluctant to acknowledge.

Like with Srinivasa Ramanujan, one of whose theorems was incidentally the subject of Salam’s first paper, physicists saw a genius in Salam but couldn’t tell where he was getting his ideas from. Salam himself – like Ramanujan – attributed his prowess as a physicist to the almighty.

It’s possible the production was conceived to focus on the political and religious sides of a science Nobel laureate, but it puts itself at some risk of whitewashing his personality by consigning the opinions of most of the women and subordinates in his life to the very end of its 75-minute runtime. Perhaps it bears noting that Salam was known to be impatient and dismissive, sometimes even manipulative. He would get angry if he wasn’t being understood. His singular focus on his work forced his first wife to bear the burden of all household responsibilities, and he had difficulty apologising for his mistakes.

The physicist Chris Isham says in the documentary that Salam was always brimming with ideas, most of them bizarre, and that Salam could never tell the good ideas apart from the sillier ones. Michael Duff continues that being Salam’s student was a mixed blessing because 90% of his ideas were nonsensical and 10% were Nobel-Prize-class. Then, the producers show Salam onscreen talking about how physicists intend to understand the rules that all inanimate matter abides by:

To do this, what we shall most certainly need [is] a complete break from the past and a sort of new and audacious idea of the type which Einstein has had in the beginning of this century.

Abdus Salam
A screenshot from ‘Salam’ showing Abdus Salam’s gravestone. Source: Netflix

This echoes interesting but not uncommon themes in the reality of India since 2014: the insistence on certainty, the attacks on doubt and the declining freedom to be wrong. There are of course financial requirements that must be fulfilled (and Salam taught at Cambridge) but ultimately there must also be a political maturity to accommodate not just ‘unapplied’ research but also research that is unsure of itself.

With the exception of maybe North Korea, it would be safe to say no country has thus far stopped theoretical physicists from working on what they wished. (Benito Mussolini in fact setup a centre that supported such research in the late-1920s and Enrico Fermi worked there for a time.) However, notwithstanding an assurance I once received from a student at JNCASR that theoretical physicists need only a pen and paper to work, explicit prohibition may not be the way to go. Some scientists have expressed anxiety that the day will come if the Hindutvawadis have their way when even the fruits of honest, well-directed efforts are ridden with guilt, and non-applied research becomes implicitly disfavoured and discouraged.

Salam got his first shot at winning a Nobel Prize when he thought to question an idea that many physicists until then took for granted. He would eventually be vindicated but only after he had been rebuffed by Wolfgang Pauli, forcing him to drop his line of inquiry. It was then taken up and to its logical conclusion by two Chinese physicists, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1957 for their efforts.

Whenever you have a good idea, don’t send it for approval to a big man. He may have more power to keep it back. If it’s a good idea, let it be published.

Abdus Salam

Salam would eventually win a Nobel Prize in 1979, together with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow – the same year in which Gen. Zia-ul-Haq had Bhutto hung to death after a controversial trial and set Pakistan on the road to Islamisation, hardening its stance against the Ahmadiya sect. Since the general was soon set to court the US against its conflict with the Russians in Afghanistan, he attempt to cast himself as a liberal figure by decorating Salam with the government’s Nishan-e-Imtiaz award.

Such political opportunism contrived until the end to keep Salam out of Pakistan even if, according to one of his sons, it “never stopped communicating with him”. This seems like an odd place to be in for a scientist of Salam’s stature, who – if not for the turmoil – could have been Pakistan’s Abdul Kalam, helping direct national efforts towards technological progress while also striving to be close to the needs of the people. Instead, as Pervez Hoodbhoy remarks in the documentary:

Salam is nowhere to be found in children’s books. There is no building named after him. There is no institution except for a small one in Lahore. Only a few have heard of his name.

Pervez Hoodbhoy

In fact, the most prominent institute named for him is the one he set up in Trieste, Italy, in 1964 (when he was 38): the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics. Salam had wished to create such an institution after the first time he had been forced to leave Pakistan because he wanted to support scientists from developing countries.

Salam sacrificed a lot of possible scientific productivity by taking on that responsibility. It’s a sacrifice I would not make.

Steven Weinberg

He also wanted the scientists to have access to such a centre because “USA, USSR, UK, France, Germany – all the rich countries of the world” couldn’t understand why such access was important, so refused to provide it.

When I was teaching in Pakistan, it became quite clear to me that either I must leave my country, or leave physics. And since then I resolved that if I could help it, I would try to make it possible for others in my situation that they are able to work in their own countries while still [having] access to the newest ideas. … What Trieste is trying to provide is the possibility that the man can still remain in his own country, work there the bulk of the year, come to Trieste for three months, attend one of the workshops or research sessions, meet the people in his subject. He had to go back charged with a mission to try to change the image of science and technology in his own country.

In India, almost everyone has heard of Rabindranath Tagore, C.V. Raman, Amartya Sen and Kailash Satyarthi. One reason our memories are so robust is that Jawaharlal Nehru – and “his insistence on scientific temper” – was independent India’s first prime minister. Another is that India has mostly had a stable government for the last seven decades. More pertinently, we keep remembering them because of what we think of the Nobel Prizes themselves. This perception is ill-founded at least as it currently stands: of the prizes as the ultimate purpose of human endeavour and as an institution in and of itself – when in fact it is just one recognition, a signifier of importance sustained by a bunch of Swedish men that has been as susceptible to bias and oversight as any other historically significant award has been.

However, as Salam (the documentary) so effectively reminds us, the Nobel Prize is also why we remember Abdus Salam, and not the many, many other Ahmadi Muslim scientists that Pakistan has disowned over the years, has never communicated with again and has never awarded the Nishan-e-Imtiaz to. If Salam hadn’t won the Nobel Prize, would we think to recall the work of any of these scientists? Or – to adopt a more cynical view – would we have focused so much of our attention on Salam instead of distributing it evenly between all disenfranchised Ahmadi Muslim scholars?

One way or another, I’m glad Salam won a Nobel Prize. And one way or another, the Nobel Committee should be glad it picked Salam, too, for he elevated it to a higher place than it could have been intended for.

Note: The headline originally indicated the documentary was released in 2019. It was actually released in 2018. I fixed the mistake on October 6, 2019, at 8.45 am.