By Pervez Hoodbhoy
May 12, 2018
IN another country naming or renaming a
university’s physics centre or department would be considered utterly
unremarkable. But here in Pakistan — if the name is that of Abdus Salam
(1926-1996, physics Nobel Prize 1979) — instant controversy is guaranteed.
That’s because, on the one hand, Salam commands the devotion of his embattled
Ahmadi community. On the other hand, mere mention of his name inspires
religious fury among sections of the population.
Some welcomed it — while others were livid
— but all were astonished in late December 2016 when national newspapers and TV
channels reported that Quaid-i-Azam University’s physics department had just
become the ‘Abdus Salam Department of Physics’ (it had not!). Soon thereafter,
that the National Centre for Physics (housed on the QAU campus) was now the
‘Professor Abdus Salam Centre for Physics’ (again, false!). The putative
changes were attributed to pre-Panama Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
For 17 months everything went quiet. Then
front pages filled up again. A parliamentary resolution tabled by Captain
Safdar, son-in-law of Nawaz Sharif and a parliamentarian, demanded that the QAU
physics department be renamed the ‘Al-Khazani department’ to honour Mansur
al-Khazani, an 11th-century Seljuk-Persian star gazer.
Safdar probably took this initiative
because he thought that the QAU physics department had indeed been renamed
after Salam. But was his resolution — which came suddenly out of the blue —
intended to spite or taunt his father-in-law? To garner election support from
Ahmadi-hating radicals of the TLP? Or was it to drum up religious sentiment at
a time when Safdar is under a NAB investigation for corruption?
In any case he certainly hit sympathetic
religious chords. Safdar’s resolution was unanimously approved by parliament,
the text of which states that Al Khazani deserves this belated recognition for
having shaken the world of physics with his astonishing works (Hairat Angaiz
This time the reporting was factual (I have
the Urdu text). But the exaggerated claim amuses for its plain silliness —
Khazani was not a physicist, just a court astronomer known only to a few
historians. One wonders who proposed his name. Did our parliamentarians fall
victim to some prankster or a trickster?
Sloppy journalism, the intellectual
laziness of parliamentarians, a general cultural antipathy to the scientific
method, and overtly expressed religious prejudice generated fevered emotions.
Over the last week, social media erected yet another Tower of Babel and
produced tonnes of trash. Surely it’s time to get the facts straight.
Here’s what actually happened. On Dec 29,
2016, the president of Pakistan, on the summary advice of the prime minister of
Pakistan, signed his approval to a document titled, ‘Proposal to Rename NCP at
QAU as Professor Abdus Salam Centre for Physics’. The summary had been vetted
on Dec 26, 2016, by the minister of state for education and professional
training. It was then sent to QAU for necessary action.
One does not know for sure what made Mian
Nawaz Sharif recognise Salam’s importance as a scientist, belated though it
was. During his first tenure as prime minister, while speaking at Government
College Lahore in 1992, he read out a long list of distinguished alumni and
faculty but had conspicuously omitted Salam’s name.
The change probably came because in early
2016 (third tenure) Sharif visited Cern (European Nuclear Research Centre, the
world’s largest laboratory) to cement the Pak-Cern collaboration. It is said he
was much impressed to learn that major parts of Cern’s research — including the
search for the Higgs boson — revolved around discoveries made by Abdus Salam
and Steven Weinberg. He was also taken for a drive on Rue de Salam, a road
named after Salam.
The official order for renaming NCP — duly
signed by the Pakistani state’s highest executives, president and prime
minister — was received at QAU (a state university) and conveyed onward to NCP
(a state-owned centre affiliated to QAU). But at NCP it died a quiet death.
More than anything else, Pakistanis should worry when state institutions
wilfully ignore executive orders.
About NCP: it is now largely funded and
operated by the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) of the Pakistan Army. Although
NCP has no connection with nuclear weapons research, the SPD is charged with
maintaining and handling the country’s nuclear weapons. It also seeks to widen
its influence within civil society, particularly in universities.
Earlier, however, NCP had been an
independent centre open and easily accessible to all. Like other centres on
campus, it was affiliated with QAU. NCP had been conceived in the 1980s jointly
by Salam and his student Riazuddin (1930-2013), a respected theoretical
physicist who also became NCP’s founding director. Though underfunded, it
started off in 1999 on modest temporary premises on the QAU campus.
NCP’s original goal had been to eventually
duplicate, albeit on a far smaller scale, the International Centre for
Theoretical Physics in Italy. Founded by Abdus Salam, the ICTP (now renamed
Abdus Salam-ICTP), hosts thousands of researchers from around the world to work
in an open, cordial, and intellectually vibrant atmosphere on cutting-edge
But in 2007, NCP underwent a character
change and a change of director. No longer was it an open institution. Instead
it has fearsome fortifications and an ambience befitting a military
institution, not an academic one. Local professors and students have been
frightened away as have been the few visiting scientists from other countries.
Several have vowed never to return. NCP is now largely staffed by bored
retirees, civil and military. With so much deadwood, it offers little of
The bottom line: the brouhaha is over. QAU
is highly unlikely to rename its physics department after a barely known
11th-century star-gazer, and it is highly unlikely that SPD (i.e. the Pakistan
Army) will implement the orders of a deposed prime-minister with whom its
relationship has been problematic.
Physics — or for that matter every kind of
science — needs an enabling cultural and social environment to flourish.
Science suffocates when scientists are judged by their religion, race,
ethnicity or any criterion other than scientific achievement. Though it was but
a storm in a teacup, this Salam episode tells us how far Pakistan needs to
travel before our soil can produce science of worth.
Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.