A cloud of grey-black smoke erupts over a brown field, likely the result of an explosion of some sort.

Disastrous hype

This is one of the worst press releases accompanying a study I’ve seen:

The headline and the body appear to have nothing to do with the study itself, which explores the creative properties of an explosion with certain attributes. However, the press office of the University of Central Florida has drafted a popular version that claims researchers – who are engineers more than physicists – have “detailed the mechanisms that could cause the [Big Bang] explosion, which is key for the models that scientists use to understand the origin of the universe.” I checked with a physicist, who agreed: “I don’t see how this is relevant to the Big Bang at all. Considering the paper is coming out of the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, I highly doubt the authors intended for it to be reported on this way.”

Press releases that hype results are often the product of an overzealous university press office working without inputs from the researchers that obtained those results, and this is probably the case here as well. The paper’s abstract and some quotes by one of the researchers, Kareem Ahmed from the University of Central Florida, indicate the study isn’t about the Big Bang but about similarities between “massive thermonuclear explosions in space and small chemical explosions on Earth”. However, the press release’s author slipped in a reference to the Big Bang because, hey, it was an explosion too.

The Big Bang was like no other stellar explosion; its material constituents were vastly different from anything that goes boom today – whether on Earth or in space – and physicists have various ideas about what could have motivated the bang to happen in the first place. The first supernovas are also thought to have occurred a few billion years after the Big Bang. This said, Ahmed was quoted saying something that could have used more clarification in the press release:

We explore these supersonic reactions for propulsion, and as a result of that, we came across this mechanism that looked very interesting. When we started to dig deeper, we realized that this is relatable to something as profound as the origin of the universe.

Err…

A screenshot of Abdus Salam from 'Salam – The First ****** Nobel Laureate'. Source: Netflix

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.

Gerald Guralnik (1936-2014)

Of the six scientists who came up with the idea of a Higgs boson in the mid-1960s, independently or in collaboration with others, I’ve met all of one. Tom Kibble was at the Institute of Mathematical Science, Chennai, in January 2013 for a conference. He was 80 years old then, and looked quite frail. Every time somebody tapped his shoulder before taking a photograph, he would break into a self-effacing smile. It was clear he was surprised by the attention he was receiving. Kibble thought he didn’t deserve it.

He, Carl Hagen and Gerald Guralnik comprised one of the three teams that conceived the mechanism to explain how some fundamental particles acquired mass in the early universe, over time making possible chemical reactions, stars, life, and many things besides. The other two teams comprised Francois Englert and Robert Brout, and Peter Higgs; Higgs’ name has today become attached to the name of the mechanism. For their work, Higgs and Englert were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics. Brout couldn’t receive the prize because he had died in 2011. Kibble, Hagen and Guralnik were left out because of limits on how many people the prize could be awarded to at a time.

Fair share of obstacles

On April 26, 2014, Gerald Guralnik died of a heart attack in Rhode Island after delivering a lecture at Brown University. He was 77. In those seven decades, he had become one of the world’s leading experts on theoretical particle physics, which, through the 1960s, was entering its boom time as the world would later discover. In this period, he co-scripted one of the most enduring quests in modern physics research.

Before I started writing this, I visited the Wikipedia page for the Physical Review Letters papers published by the three groups that first called the world’s attention to their findings. In the second line, Peter Higgs is mentioned as having worked with Satyen Bose – undoubtedly the consequence of a grave misapprehension that pervaded India when the 2013 Nobel Prizes were announced. Many believed Satyen Bose had been neglected for his work, but he just hadn’t worked on the Higgs boson, only on the underlying theory that controls the lives and times of all bosons. If such are the facile issues that concern some misguided Indians today, Guralnik tackled more than a fair share in his time.

sb1

For a few years after Kibble, Hagen and Guralnik published their paper, their work wasn’t taken seriously. Guralnik wrote in Huffington Post in August 2012 that, in the summer of 1965, Werner Heisenberg – the originator of the notorious uncertainty principle – thought Guralnik’s ideas were junk. The New York Times wrote that Robert Marshak, a famous theoretical physicist, told Guralnik that if he wished to survive in physics, he “must stop thinking about this sort of problem and move on,” advice that Guralnik “wisely obeyed”. According to Kibble, however, Marshak later admitted that he had been misguided.

Deference over primacy

Nevertheless, some other scientists had starting working on Guralnik & co.’s theories. By the 1970s, Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg had succeeded in ironing out many of its inconsistencies and won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979 for their work… even though it would be 50 more years to prove via experiment that the Higgs mechanism was for real. This is because there was no disputing that the implications of the work of Kibble, Hagen, Guralnik, Higgs, Brout and Englert were revolutionary, at least among those who were willing to accept it.

To this end, the 1979 prizewinners and the ‘Higgs Six’ were aware of and deferential toward the contributions of others to the development of this new theory. In fact, Higgs, who has often wound up being the centre of attention when talk of his eponymous mechanism comes up, has said that he’d rather call it the ABEGHHK’tH mechanism (A denoted Phillip Warren Anderson; ‘tH, Gerardus ‘t Hooft).

But others were less considerate, which didn’t go down well with Guralnik. As Kibble wrote in his obituary in Nature, “Guralnik came to feel that our early paper was often unfairly neglected. He gave talks and wrote papers pointing out our distinctive contribution, of which he was justifiably proud, and in which he was unquestionably the prime mover.” This doesn’t mean he went on to become a sour, old bat, of course, but only that Guralnik seemed to appreciate the gravitas of his work much more than others at the time. When  Higgs and Englert shared the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics, Guralnik told Brown Daily Herald that he was “a little hurt”, but happier for the recognition that his peers – and by extension his work – had received.

(It is, in fact, hard to say if he is as celebrated as Higgs is today, physicists notwithstanding. Such are the consequences of asymmetric recognition, a sort of ceiling effect that silences avant garde advancements until the world is ready to hear them. This is also a complaint I’ve heard from far too many Indian scientists and whose efforts to remedy it I don’t begrudge them even if it only seems like an infantile squabble over primacy.)

In fact, after his work in establishing the theoretical foundations of the Higgs mechanism, which itself is a cornerstone of a unified theory that describes both the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces of nature, Guralnik proceeded to make a lot of other contributions. He worked on computational approaches to quantum field theory, quantum chromodynamics (i.e., the theory of the strong nuclear force), the application of chaos theory to particle physics, and string theory. His was a versatile genius, in part combative and in part pliant. Rest in peace.