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The Journey

Over 40 years of prolific research dedicated to theoretical elementary particle physics

Humble beginnings

A black and white image of a young Chaudry Muhammad Hussain, Abdus Salam’s father. The date is unknown, but it seems to be a family gathering, with the young boy standing amongst many older men.

Chaudry Muhammad Hussain, Abdus Salam’s father. Date unknown.

Salam grew up in the city of Jhang in Pakistan. He was born as the oldest boy in a large family of humble means. He often studied by candlelight in his two-roomed family home with no access to electricity or running water.

After demonstrating outstanding academic achievement at the age of 14, when he scored the highest marks ever recorded for the entrance examination at the Punjab University, Salam won a full scholarship to the Government College of Lahore. He received a B.A. in Mathematics in 1944 and a MA in Mathematics in 1946.

Salam was awarded a scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge and received a BA Degree in Double First-Class Honours in Mathematics and Physics. He then completed a PhD at St John’s, which was published in 1951.

By the time he obtained a PhD, under the supervision of Paul Dirac, he had already gained a reputation amongst the likes of Hans Bethe and J. Robert Oppenheimer for his intellectual prowess and talent. His PhD was awarded the Adams Prize, one of the oldest and most prestigious academic prizes at the University of Cambridge.

Returning to Lahore at the Government College University, Salam taught as a Professor of Mathematics for a few years, but due to opposition from his peers and religious persecution, he re-joined St John’s College in 1954. During his lectureship in Cambridge, he still visited Pakistan occasionally as an adviser on science policy to the Government.

Salam at Imperial

Salam’s scientific journey at Imperial started in 1956. P.M.S Blackett, the Head of the Department of Physics at the time, offered Salam a chair position at the suggestion of Hans Bethe. Bethe was a refugee from Nazi Germany, who had become close acquaintances with Blackett at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. Bethe had been impressed by Salam during his fellowship at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies.

Salam was originally appointed as a Chair of Mathematical Physics, which was within the Department of Mathematics at the time, but he was soon transferred to the Department of Physics. He founded the Theoretical Physics Group the year he joined and remained a professor at Imperial for the rest of his career. He was the first Pakistani and only the second man from South Asia to have a professorial chair at a British university.

Imperial College London Physics professors in 1964. Front row from left to right: Abdus Salam, C.C. Butler, P.M.S. Blackett, W.D. Wright, H. Elliot. Back row from left to right: P.T. Matthews, M. Blackman, J.D. McGee, B.J. Mason.

Imperial College London Physics professors in 1964. Front row from left to right: Abdus Salam, C.C. Butler, P.M.S. Blackett, W.D. Wright, H. Elliot. Back row from left to right: P.T. Matthews, M. Blackman, J.D. McGee, B.J. Mason.

A time of change

A photocopy of a letter with a University of Cambridge letterhead. It is dated for 20 March 1956, and is addressed from N.F. Mott to Dr A. Salam. Mott tells Salam that he has raised the question of whether it'd be possible for Salam to teach in Pakistan for a term during the academic year, but he is unsure about what the University's attitude towards it will be. The last paragraph of the letter expresses about whether a theoretical group in Imperial would be able to flourish, stating that Imperial's expansion is largely geared towards a "technological education".

Letter from Nevill Mott, a Cambridge mathematician, to Salam. Salam was considering Blackett’s offer to teach at Imperial, and it is implied that part of Salam’s concerns was the flexibility to travel back to his home country.
Mott tries to subtly persuade Salam to stay at Cambridge, stating that “the purpose of the Imperial College expansion is technological education” and that a theoretical physicist may feel isolated.

Imperial at the time was known as the Imperial College of Science and Technology. It had the reputation of being a largely technical school (something that Salam’s peers at St John’s College, Cambridge would point out), but an intensification of post-war funding from the British government towards science and technology meant that Imperial was expanding.

At the same time, Britain was experiencing large waves of emigration from its former colonies. This demographic change in the UK opened doors for well-educated scientists like Salam to be promoted to more senior positions in the most prestigious British universities.

In a personal note to a Pakistani acquaintance, Salam justified his decision to move to Imperial. Salam expressed a deep loyalty to Pakistan and his decision was largely motivated by the desire to take a term out of the year to teach at his alma mater.

“As you are aware, I was reluctant to consider the London offer but the determining factor in my acceptance was the kind advice of His Excellency, the High Commissioner & the Prime Minister, who took the view that the London appointment was in the interests of our scholarship, that I need not feel an isolated exile and that I would be doing a job of work for my country.”

– Abdus Salam to Sharif Sahib , a personal correspondence dated 20 November 1956

Theoretical Physics Group

Together, Abdus Salam and Paul Matthews created one of the most dynamic groups in theoretical physics research.

Having a well-known titan of research did much to attract PhD students and other scientists to the group. Salam and Matthews often also used imaginative strategies to lure academic visitors and speakers to Imperial, sometimes picking them up from the airport or arranging tailored entertainment for them in London.

Salam himself closely supervised and collaborated with students and researchers in the Theoretical Physics Group. A non-exhaustive list of examples include Sir Thomas Kibble, Christopher Isham, Michael Duff, Yuval Ne’eman.

Sir Tom Kibble, dressed in a newsboy cap, a blue shirt layered with a grey sweater and a green jacket.Sir Tom Kibble: Kibble joined the Theoretical Physics Group in 1959. In 1964, Professor Kibble wrote “Global conservation laws and massless particles” in collaboration with two American scientists: Gerald Guralnik and Richard Hagen. It, along with another paper that Kibble authored, led to the concept of a mass-giving particle now known as the Higgs boson. Kibble was trained by Salam, and often Salam referred to the ‘Higgs-Kibble mechanism’.


Chris Isham, wearing glasses and seated in a black chair.Christopher Isham: Christopher Isham was Salam’s research student when he first joined Imperial in 1969, and was offered a permanent position immediately out of his PhD – something that was unheard of. He was the Head of the Theoretical Physics Group from 1983-1988 and 1998-2022. Isham developed an approach to temporal quantum logic known as ‘history projector operator formalism’.


Mike Duff, wearing a blue denim shirt and a brown jacket.Michael Duff: Michael Duff was a PhD student of Salam from 1969-1972. He took his first postdoctoral position at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics. Duff has become an influential pioneer in the fields of quantum gravity and ‘M-theory’ – a theory that seeks to unify all consistent conjectures in superstring theory.



A black and white photo of Yuval Ne'eman. Yuval Ne’eman: Yuval Ne’eman was a PhD student of Salam from 1958-1960. He was an Israeli military attaché in London when he approached Salam, who was amused and impressed by his ideas. He went on to develop the ‘eightfold way’, an organisational scheme for subatomic particles that has evolved into the current quark model of particle physics. He served as Israel Minister of Science & Deveolopment (1982-1984), its Minister of Science & Technology (1990-1992) and its Minister of Energy and Infrastructure (1990-1992).

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