The ‘Salam Centre’ brouhaha

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.

Science suffocates when scientists are judged by their religion, race or ethnicity.

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 karnamay).

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 scientific problems.

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 intellectual value.

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.

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