Salam: the First ****** Nobel Laureate is a documentary currently streaming on Netflix that looks at the life of Abdus Salam, the first Muslim scientist to win a Nobel Prize. In learning about his story — which included multiple visits to China, and a complicated relationship with his home country of Pakistan — Yangyang Cheng reflects on her own. When science is primarily funded by the state, what is a scientist’s civic duty to the profession, to one’s country, and to fundamental values?
The film opened with scenes of a cemetery. Rows of tombstones stood beneath a clear blue sky, surrounded by lush shades of green. The camera zoomed in on one of the headstones. On the bottom half of the marble slab, the English inscription read, “Professor Muhammad Abdus Salam,” and a few lines below, “in 1979 became the first Nobel laureate for his work in physics.”
There was an uncomfortable space between the words “first” and “Nobel.” Another word had been erased, sloppily covered up with white paint.
“I am the first Muslim who has gotten the prize for science,” an accented voice sounded in the background. The screen cut to a recording of the Nobel Prize awarding ceremony in 1979, where Salam, dressed in traditional clothing with a tall white turban, walked up to receive his medal from the Swedish King.
Abdus Salam was a Pakistani physicist. He was also a member of the Ahmadi community, an Islamic sect deemed non-Muslim by Pakistani law. A new documentary, Salam: the First ****** Nobel Laureate, takes a comprehensive look at the scientist’s remarkable life and how it paralleled the story of his homeland. Salam spent most of his career in Europe, yet he remained devoted to Pakistan, and was involved in its controversial nuclear program.
I am a particle physicist from China. Salam helped construct the theoretical framework of my discipline. While the film focuses on Pakistan, Salam’s work also brought him to China on several occasions, at a time when few foreign scientists visited, and he formed substantial relationships with multiple Chinese leaders and academics.
The triumphs and tragedies in Salam’s life reflect some of the most consequential geopolitical developments in the 20th century; they also speak to a scientist’s struggle: with his profession, his faith, and the country he loved.
On an early summer day in 1925, a humble education worker in British India had a dream. An angel carried a message from Allah that the man would soon have his first son; the child would bring honor to his family, not through battlefield glory or material wealth, but by the force of his intellect.
When the boy was born in January the following year, his father named him Abdus Salam, “the servant of peace.” As if proving the divine prophecy, Salam excelled at school, showing an early gift for math. Barely out of his teenage years, he had received his master’s degree from Government College University in Lahore, the capital city of Punjab. Having exhausted the educational opportunities his hometown could offer, the brilliant young man was thirsty for more.
It was 1946. The governor of Punjab had collected a sizable wartime fund. Now that World War II had ended, the official used some of the money to set up a scholarship, and selected five promising pupils from his province to study overseas. Salam was one of them. Having already applied to and been accepted by St. John’s College at Cambridge, the 20-year-old set off for England.
The other four students stayed behind to apply for the following academic year. Then the partition happened, and the scholarship was gone. Salam was its sole beneficiary.
The liberation of India from British colonial rule, and the creation of the new state of Pakistan in the summer of 1947, were accompanied by some of the most brutal and widespread sectarian violence in modern history. More than 14 million people were forcibly displaced, with an estimated loss of life ranging from the hundreds of thousands to possibly two million.
A border was drawn through Punjab, and Salam became a citizen of Pakistan. Reading in the vaunted halls of Cambridge, as one of the few darker faces in an almost exclusively white space, Salam learned of the developments in his homeland through the news and letters from home. How did he react upon knowledge of the seismic events? Did he praise God for his good fortune, or was he tormented by the guilt of having escaped?
Salam received his Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge in 1951 and returned to teach at his alma mater, the Government College University in Lahore. After three short years, he would leave the land of his birth permanently, coming back only for official visits.
“It became quite clear to me that either I must leave my country, or leave physics. And to great anguish I chose to leave my country,” Salam spoke in the film. While he attributed his reasons for leaving Pakistan to “professional frustration and intellectual loneliness,” it is hard to overlook the discrimination faced by the Ahmadi community as a major factor. In the summer of 1953, before Salam’s departure, a series of violent attacks against the Ahmadis in Lahore and other parts of Punjab led to many deaths, and the local government declared martial law.
Salam went back to Cambridge and was later appointed to chair the Department of Mathematical Physics at Imperial College London. In the fall of 1956, he attended a conference in Seattle, and was intrigued by an idea presented by the Chinese physicist Chen-Ning Yang (杨振宁 Yáng Zhènníng). Yang, then a professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, was working with his Chinese colleague Tsung-Dao Lee (李政道 Lǐ Zhèngdào) on a novel concept called “parity violation,” that the universe’s reflection in the mirror would behave differently from what was expected.
After returning to England, Salam pursued the idea with calculations of his own, but was discouraged by senior colleagues, including the Nobel laureate Wolfgang Pauli. Yang and Lee’s theory on the handedness of the universe was experimentally proven in the beginning of 1957, and the duo received the Nobel Prize in physics that year.
Had Salam not been rebuffed by Pauli, could he have won the Nobel much earlier? The film appears to suggest so, noting that Pauli apologized to Salam “after the fact.”
How could I be so petty, my national identity so parochial?
I found myself somewhat bothered by this moment in the narrative. Yang and Lee’s winning paper was submitted in June of 1956, predating Salam’s work on this topic. Of course, it is not unusual that academics fight over the minutes of a timeline, who thought of what when. Yang and Lee had an infamous fallout after their Nobel, rumored to be due to disagreements in who deserved more credit for their joint paper.
Why am I so hung up on this detail? Had it been two white men who got the prize for parity violation, I would most certainly have felt different, perhaps even sharing a tinge of indignation for Salam. But Yang and Lee are Chinese, and I sense a primal urge to defend them.
I am embarrassed to admit this. How could I be so petty, my national identity so parochial? How much Chinese pride could I derive from Yang and Lee’s award after all, when they did their work in the United States?
Yang and Lee are the first Chinese Nobel laureates. Salam was the first Muslim scientist to receive the award, and the first Pakistani. As descendants of ancient civilizations ravaged by foreign invasions and internal upheaval in modern times, these scientists’ recognition with the world’s most prestigious prize was not just a matter of personal ambition: their medals carried the hopes and dreams of a people, and the vindication for past humiliations.
“Breaking the barrier. Taking away the sense of inferiority,” said Salam on the significance of his Nobel in 1979, as heard in the film. Representation matters. For a particle physicist, whose esoteric pursuit was burdened with the weight of history, whose academic achievement was magnified by the scarcity in his country, how should he fulfill the responsibility to his profession and to his people?
Three years older than Salam, Chen-Ning Yang was born in the southern Chinese city of Hefei, my hometown. Before the Japanese invasions forced his family across China in search for safety, Yang studied briefly at Luzhou Academy, the predecessor to Hefei No. 1 High School, my alma mater.
In 1945 Yang came to the United States for his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Chicago, having received funding from the Boxers Indemnity Scholarship. Similar to Salam’s studies at Cambridge, Yang’s education was made financially feasible by an accident of history, in the backdrop of war and foreign occupation.
Different as the situations in China and the Indian subcontinent were, Yang, like Salam, watched his country engulfed by internal conflict as he explored the wonders of elementary particles from an ocean away. By the time Yang left Chicago for Princeton in 1949 to continue his postdoctoral research, the government in China had also changed hands. A border was drawn along a narrow body of water, between the defeated Nationalist government in Taiwan and the new Communist state on the mainland.
Yang stayed in the U.S. Many overseas Chinese scientists, including Yang’s former classmates, went back to their battered homeland. They understood the professional cost, that their ability to conduct cutting-edge research would be severely curtailed. They also knew that in China, their knowledge would serve a different purpose: instead of advancing human understanding of nature, they would be laying the scientific foundation for their country.
For the ones with relevant expertise, they would also be working toward a particular goal: to build a Chinese Bomb.
The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki revealed the power of nuclear weapons, and shocked the conscience of many scientists. Yet for a fledgling state in a perilous world, the most fearsome tool of mass destruction was also the most desired form of national defense. In 1955, during the First Taiwan Strait Crisis, and on the heels of “nuclear blackmail” by the Eisenhower administration, the Chinese government under Mao started developing its nuclear weapons. Dèng Jiàxiān 邓稼先, Yang’s close friend since adolescence, was a leader in the effort. China successfully detonated its first atomic bomb in 1964. That year, Yang became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
The Indian government had harbored nuclear ambitions since its independence. The prospects of a Chinese Bomb, and the conflict with China along the Himalayan border in 1962, served as useful imperatives for India to launch its nuclear program.
Pakistan was not to be left out. The violent hatred unleashed during the partition, and the open wound in the disputed territories of Kashmir, kept the perception of the “India threat” alive and burning in the minds of the Pakistani government and much of its public. In 1965, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then foreign minister of Pakistan, famously declared at a press conference that, “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own. We have no other choice.”
Salam, in addition to his professorship at Imperial College London, had been serving as the science adviser to the Pakistani government since 1960, and was appointed by Bhutto to lead the Pakistani delegation to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In March of 1965, Salam made his first trip to China, accompanying Pakistani President Ayub Khan, who seized power through a military coup in 1958. During the visit, Salam also had a one-on-one meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The two formed a personal bond, and Salam came to China again the following year per Zhou’s invitation, to attend an international conference on physics for developing nations.
Despite Bhutto’s aggressive rhetoric, Pakistan had publicly followed a non-weaponization policy in the early years of its nuclear development. This was to change in 1971, when East Pakistan became the independent state of Bangladesh after a bloody war. Bhutto, who assumed the presidency in December of that year, felt that his country was isolated internationally and exceedingly vulnerable to its eastern neighbor of India.
Perhaps Salam loved the land of his birth so much, he was willing to accept the state that claimed the territory. Perhaps Salam loved Pakistan not for what she was, but for what she could be.
In January of 1972, in a meeting with nuclear scientists and engineers, which Salam helped arrange, Bhutto demanded the speedy completion of a Pakistani Bomb: “Three years, I want it in three years.”
That fall, Salam visited China for a third time.
According to two newly published papers in Chinese social science journals, Salam’s 1972 trip to Beijing was “no ordinary visit.” Tasked by Bhutto, Salam sought technical assistance for Pakistan’s nuclear program. In his meeting with Zhou, Salam expressed hope for collaboration between Pakistani and Chinese physicists in nuclear technology.
Zhou’s response, as cited in the paper, was cautious: “The (Chinese) Academy of Sciences needs to study this carefully and make preparations. We will send some people over to you for experiences and technology.”
Two months later, a Chinese team led by Jiāng Shèngjiē 姜圣阶 attended the opening ceremony of KANUPP, Pakistan’s first nuclear power plant. A chemist and nuclear engineer, Jiang played an important role in the Chinese nuclear weapons program, and was deputy director of the Atomic Energy Institute in Beijing. As depicted in the film, a report from Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English-language newspaper, quoted Jiang as saying that “China has no nuclear power plants and that Pakistan is ahead of her.” Though China had manufactured both the atomic and hydrogen bombs in the 1960s, it was not until 1991 that its first nuclear power plant began operations.
China’s involvement in the Pakistani nuclear program has long been a subject mired in secrecy, accusations, and denial. Publicly, the Chinese government has acknowledged its contributions to nuclear energy in Pakistan, but maintains that such collaborations have been strictly for peaceful purposes. While the whole truth may be revealed by future historians, what appears beyond dispute is Salam’s own role in the Pakistani effort, leveraging his scientific prestige and personal connections to help his country acquire the Bomb.
On September 7, 1974, with Bhutto as its Prime Minister, the Pakistani parliament added an amendment to its constitution, declaring the Ahmadis as non-Muslim. The legislation, an act of political opportunism by the Bhutto administration, was devastating to Salam.
“Declared non-Muslim; cannot cope,” read Salam’s diary entry from that day, as seen in the film. He resigned from his advisory role to the Pakistani government, and in later years became a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons.
Three years after the constitutional amendment that outlawed the Ahmadi faith, Bhutto was toppled in a military coup led by General Zia-ul-Haq, who claimed his path to power as “the first Islamic revolution” in the region. Zia accelerated the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, and later issued an ordinance that made it illegal for Ahmadis to preach or profess their beliefs.
Bhutto was executed in 1979. Salam won the Nobel prize in physics that year, shared with the American scientists Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow. Their work proved that two of nature’s most fundamental forces, the electromagnetic force and the weak force, are in fact manifestations of the same interaction.
On his first three trips to China in the 1960s and early 1970s, Salam was the science adviser to the Pakistani government, but he also carried a personal mission, to invite Chinese scientists to visit the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP).
Recognizing the dearth of resources for science and education in developing countries, Salam founded ICTP in 1964 with seed funding from the Italian government and UNESCO, the United Nations agency for education and cultural development. Based in the Italian city of Trieste, the center provides short-term residency and other forms of research support for scientists from around the world.
After the Communists won the civil war, the Republic of China, which had retreated to Taiwan, was still the official representative of “China” at the UN. It was not until 1971 that the General Assembly recognized the People’s Republic of China instead of the Nationalist government, and the fight over “which China” lingered at individual agencies, including UNESCO.
Pakistan was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the new government in Beijing, not out of sympathy for its Communist ideology, but in a mutually beneficial move of geopolitics. Nevertheless, ICTP’s affiliation with the UN, and the political turmoil in China during the Mao years, made it impossible for Chinese scientists to visit the center in its first 15 years.
In 1978, after a physics conference in Tokyo, Salam came to Beijing for a fourth visit, extending the invitation on behalf of ICTP once more. The Cultural Revolution had just ended, and the Middle Kingdom was in desperate need to rebuild its tattered science and education sectors. The year also marked the beginning of China’s “reform and opening-up” policy, and in 1979, a total of 18 Chinese scientists visited ICTP for the first time.
The 1980s in China was a time of rapid transformation and boundless hope. In the spring of 1986, an elite group of Chinese scientists, veterans of the country’s space and nuclear programs, wrote a joint letter to Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平, China’s paramount leader, urging for more government support in basic research. Deng endorsed the proposal, and the “State High-Tech Research and Development Program” was launched, better known as the “863 Project,” named after the year and month of the letter that marked China’s Sputnik moment.
A few weeks later, Salam penned his own correspondence to Deng, hoping that the Chinese government could help scientists from the global south, including travel support for them to attend conferences in China. That September, Salam visited China again. He met with Deng in Beijing and traveled south to Hefei, the birthplace of Yang and myself.
In a grainy black-and-white photo, captioned “1986, Asian Regional College on Microprocessors, (USTC), Hefei, China,” a diverse group of scientists gathered in front of the old library building at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). The bearded and bespectacled Salam sat in the front row. To his right was a smiling Fāng Lìzhī 方励之, an astrophysicist and the executive vice president of USTC.
A decade Salam’s junior, Fang had studied physics at Peking University in the 1950s. His first job out of university was to work on calculations for a nuclear reactor, a short-lived stint due to Fang’s political outspokenness. Persecuted during Mao’s campaigns, Fang spent most of his career in China at USTC, and founded the country’s first astrophysics group there in 1971, at a time when the discipline was deemed politically incorrect for being contrary to Marxist doctrine.
Partly inspired by the universality of cosmic principles, Fang became a fierce advocate for democracy and human rights in China, and promoted educational reform and international collaboration in the sciences. In 1985, Fang and Salam, together with a few other colleagues from Italy and the U.S., co-founded the International Center for Relativistic Astrophysics (ICRA).
On the occasion of his 60th birthday in 1986, a collection of Salam’s essays was published under the title Ideals and Realities. “Physicists have a tradition of civic participation,” wrote Fang in the foreword for its Chinese edition. “It might be that physicists have always pursued the unity, perfection, harmony, and coherence of the natural world. Then, how could they logically tolerate the imperfection, disharmony, and incoherence of human society?”
“Among the living Nobel laureates in physics, (Salam) is the only one holding citizenship from a Third World country,” Fang continued. Having turned down both Italian and British citizenships, Salam kept his Pakistani passport with pride. “Just as his tireless work in physics is to seek the unification among seemingly disparate forces, Salam’s civic participation is to realize the god-given equality among seemingly disparate nations and people.” Fang saw a kindred spirit in his Pakistani colleague.
“Just as his tireless work in physics is to seek the unification among seemingly disparate forces, Salam’s civic participation is to realize the god-given equality among seemingly disparate nations and people.”
In 1987, Salam visited China for a sixth and final time to attend the Second Conference of the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), held in Beijing that year. He led the creation of TWAS four years prior and was serving as its president. At the time, Salam was also garnering support for his bid to become the next Director-General of UNESCO. Having traveled to some 30 countries in his lobbying effort, Salam would have his dream crushed by his own government. Pakistan put forth another candidate.
Abdus Salam died in England in 1996 from a degenerative neural disease. He was 70 years old. “He belonged to Pakistan. He always wanted to be buried here. This was so important to him,” said Salam’s British wife. When his body was returned to his hometown in Punjab, tens of thousands of Pakistanis came to his service. Laid to rest at an Ahmadi cemetery, next to the graves of his parents, Salam’s epitaph reads, “The first Muslim Nobel laureate.” The word “Muslim” was later obscured on the order of local officials.
Pakistan successfully conducted a series of nuclear tests in the spring of 1998. Its government issued a commemorative stamp that November, featuring Salam as part of the “scientists of Pakistan” series. Salam’s name remains a sensitive matter in the country due to his religious faith, and few places outside of his former university in Lahore openly commemorate him.
Fang Lizhi was forced to leave China after the crackdown in 1989, as the Chinese government branded him “the biggest blackhand” behind the Tiananmen Square protests. When the Chinese translation of Salam’s essays was released in December of that fateful year, Fang’s foreword was nowhere to be found. The astrophysicist spent the rest of his life teaching at the University of Arizona, his request to return to China repeatedly denied. Fang died in 2012, and is buried in Arizona. His name, academic publications, and personal writings remain banned in China.
Chen-Ning Yang renounced his U.S. citizenship in 2015 and became a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, where he now lives. In media interviews, Yang said that his father, who died in 1973, never forgave him for becoming a U.S. citizen.
The film concluded by returning to Salam’s resting place. A cemetery worker was seen performing his daily duty, watering the ground, taking care of the headstones. “My job is to keep the graves clean,” he said. “I also restore the graves that get damaged because of the rains.”
In that moment, I felt an overwhelming envy for the worker. It’s a silly reaction: I know nothing about the man, outside of the few seconds he appeared on the screen. But his service, simple and dignified, was a rare moment of serenity in the documentary, a temporary reprieve from the weight of tragedy and controversy in the main character’s life.
When Salam was born in British India, Pakistan was only an idea. What drove his devotion to a country much younger than him, even after its government had repeatedly betrayed him and his people? Salam asserted his Muslim identity as much as his Pakistani one, but Pakistan made them incompatible.
Perhaps Salam loved the land of his birth so much, he was willing to accept the state that claimed the territory. Perhaps Salam loved Pakistan not for what she was, but for what she could be.
Before the state formally legislated against his Ahmadi faith, Salam had worked in earnest for a Pakistani Bomb. Let them eat grass, the notorious phrase by Bhutto in declaring his nuclear conviction, has always stung. In the years between 1959 and 1961, as China raced toward the Bomb, tens of millions of Chinese people starved to death in a famine caused by the government’s failed policies. My people, who survived on dirt and grass, also cheered at my country’s first nuclear explosion.
Why did Salam help Pakistan acquire nuclear weapons? I ask myself this question, as I have done so repeatedly in the context of my scientific forefathers in China, who built the atomic arsenal for a brutal regime that has wreaked so much death and destruction, including to the scientists and their family members.
Maybe Salam believed that nuclear weapons were a necessary evil to protect his country and its people. Maybe he saw the state’s interest in the Bomb as an opportunity to develop Pakistan’s scientific infrastructure. Maybe it was his ego, that he enjoyed the proximity to political leadership, and the power that came with it.
After Salam won the Nobel in 1979, Zia, the military dictator who ordered Bhutto’s execution and exacerbated religious intolerance in the country, awarded Salam with the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s highest civilian honor. As shown in the film, Salam, who had resigned his government advisership five years prior due to the legal discrimination of the Ahmadis, stood in front of Zia to receive his medal, and posed with the uniformed dictator.
“Why did he accept it?” After watching the documentary for the first time at a film festival last year, I went up to the producer and the director and pressed both of them with this question: Why did Salam lend his image for Zia’s propaganda? Why didn’t Salam reject the award in protest of the state that had rejected him?
The filmmakers did not have the answer that only Salam could give. It was selfish of me to ask, and even more so to hope that Salam would have done differently. I had projected my own insecurities onto a late, great figure, demanding a personal sacrifice that he was not obligated to make.
Salam was not a dissident. His country had turned its back on him because of who he was and how he prayed. But whenever he could, Salam had worked with the Pakistani government to advance science and education in his country, even if it meant standing next to corrupt politicians and military dictators. Was Salam complicit? Was the compromise worth it? And if the answers to both questions are yes, who am I to judge?
I studied at USTC as an undergraduate, where Fang’s name remains a badge of forbidden pride. I received my Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago, where Yang’s and Lee’s portraits hang in the hallways. I chose to stay in the U.S. after graduation, because since the first taste of freedom, I cannot imagine life without it. Many of my colleagues and former classmates have accepted positions in China, at a time when the Chinese government is accelerating its investment in science and technology, aggressively pursuing foreign-trained talent, and tightening its authoritarian grip both at home and abroad.
No one says a country needs to become a liberal democracy before developing its science, and no political system is immune to abuses of technology. When science is primarily funded by the state, what is a scientist’s civic duty, to the profession, to one’s country, and to fundamental values? When these three inevitably come into conflict, which should be undermined for the fulfillment of the other?
I watched the film again when it became available on Netflix earlier this month. Its 75 minutes was as gorgeous as I had remembered, Salam’s story as sad and agonzing. No amount of rewinding and rewatching brought moral clarity or emotional relief. I felt the pain more acutely this year, the topic hitting even closer to home.
I am not religious, or a member of a mistreated minority in China. My estrangement from my home country is, in a way, entirely of my own making. Political dissent is a path I had never envisioned taking; yet when I started writing critically of the Chinese government’s repressive policies, it was also rooted in the cosmopolitan ideals of my science, and out of an obligation to the land of my birth and the time of my life.
When might I be able to go back to China again, safely? If I do not have an answer to this question, in which country can I live, in whose borders will I die, and in what land should I be buried?
As the final scene in the film rested on Salam’s defaced tombstone, I was reminded of a poem by the Pakistani-Kashmiri-American artist Fatimah Asghar. Since first encountering her words a year ago, I have recited these lines to myself countless times, a reminder of where I came from, and how I must live:
my people my people I can’t be lost
…our names this country’s wood
for the fire my people my people
the long years we’ve survived the long
years yet to come I see you map
my sky the light your lantern long
ahead & I follow I follow
Yangyang Cheng and the Science and China Column will return on the final Wednesday of every month. Last month: