interest in Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s legendary theoretical physicist, has surged
with the worldwide release of Salam, The First ****** Nobel Laureate, a Netflix
documentary. While the movie dwells on his scientific achievements — and even
more upon his deep personal disappointments — absent is any mention of his
numerous missions to China. The makers of the movie cannot be blamed. Until
now, this aspect of his life was largely unknown to even those of his
colleagues who knew him well.
Chinese physicists, Jinghan Sun and Xiaodong Yin, have just lifted the curtain.
Their paper, titled Abdus Salam and China — A View on Salam’s Influence on
China’s Science Development Based on His Six Visits to China was published from
Beijing in March 2019 in a Chinese language journal. It draws upon transcripts
of various meetings held at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. My Chinese
physicist friends have kindly translated some parts into English, to be dwelt
paper reveals Salam’s effort to seek China’s help for Pakistan’s nuclear weapon
programme. This goes some way towards answering: what was Salam’s role in
Pakistan’s bomb project? His many enemies allege he played no role while others
claim he spilled Pakistan’s nuclear secrets over to America, Israel, and India.
On the other hand, his admirers insist Salam was a man of peace who never
wanted nuclear weapons. Where’s the truth?
are now before us: Salam, already an academic superstar in the 1950s, visited
China six times and met the highest Chinese leaders. On his first trip in March
1958, Salam accompanied President Ayub Khan as his scientific adviser and had a
one-on-one meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The two formed a personal
bond. At Zhou’s invitation, Salam visited China again in 1959 for a conference.
China was not yet a nuclear power and Ayub Khan had no interest in nuclear
changed drastically after East Pakistan separated on Dec 16, 1971. Barely six
weeks later, on Jan 20, 1972, president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto convened a meeting
of Pakistani scientists in Multan. An emotional Bhutto exhorted them to make an
atomic bomb, a desire he had first articulated in 1965. Salam was present and
Sun-Yin we learn that subsequently Bhutto sent Salam to China in 1972 to seek
China’s help with nuclear weapons technology. On page 120 the authors say that
Salam emphasised his third trip was “not an ordinary visit”. In his meeting
with Zhou on the evening of Sept 5, 1972, Salam made his upfront request for
recorded reply was circumspect: “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.” It is unclear if the authors are inserting
their own opinion when they write: “Salam did not accomplish his objective …
although China was very hospitable, it was also extremely cautious.”
recent article by Dr Yangyang Cheng of Cornell University emphasises that two
months after Salam’s visit a Chinese team led by Jiang Shengjie attended the
opening ceremony of KANUPP, the Canadian nuclear power plant gifted to
Pakistan. A chemist and nuclear engineer, Jiang played an important role in the
Chinese nuclear weapons programme and was deputy director of the Atomic Energy
Institute in Beijing.
on the bomb project but didn’t get into design details — the physics of nuclear
implosions was old hat and he was busy chasing bigger fish. So in late
September 1972 he summoned his former student Riazuddin (died 2013) to his
office at the ICTP in Trieste, Italy. Riazuddin, my senior colleague, had founded
the physics department at Quaid-e-Azam University and was intellectually well
equipped for the task.
instructed Riazuddin to create a group of theoreticians for understanding the
physics of nuclear implosions. PAEC chairman Munir Ahmad Khan, with whom Salam
had a warm relationship, agreed. Riazuddin — who received the prestigious
Hilal-i-Pakistan after the 1998 nuclear tests — dutifully obeyed. How it all
worked out can be found in Riazuddin’s memoirs, to be published soon.
from Riazuddin’s group important? The Americans claim Pakistan possessed
detailed blueprints of the nuclear weapons China had tested in the 1960s. One
set was confiscated in 2004 from the ship BBC Cargo intercepted on route to
Libya. Other nuclear materials sold by Dr A.Q. Khan were also captured. Gen
Musharraf had subsequently ordered Dr. A.Q. Khan to apologise on PTV.
But even if
Pakistan had these blueprints, they would have been useless without a sound
understanding of the underlying theoretical principles — Libyans possessing the
same blueprints could do nothing with them. For Pakistan a design template
together with physics knowledge made the task much easier. The second step —
tuning weapons for different yields and creating different warhead options — is
then a relatively small increment.
palmed off Pakistan’s nuclear secrets to other countries is a flat lie created
by those very persons who were actually into this business and were thereafter
exposed. He was not involved in the bomb’s development work (except in a broad
sense) and knew no technical secrets.
Salam was in for a big shock; 1974 turned his life upside down. He was
devastated when his Ahmadi community was declared non-Muslim by Bhutto’s
government. Earlier it was possible to be an Ahmadi as well as a Pakistani
nationalist. Although Salam tried valiantly to remain both, his attitude
towards the atomic bomb did gradually change. Eventually, he saw it as an
existential threat to humankind.
To end on a
side note: among my life’s countless regrets, major and minor, is that I never
summoned the courage to engage with Salam on the bomb issue. From 1984,
continuing until two to three years before his death in 1996, he and I had
intermittently discussed many issues — social, political, and scientific — but
never this. Did he regret his earlier involvement? He was certainly aware that
I often spoke and wrote against all nuclear weapons (including Pakistan’s).
Though I suspected Salam’s feelings had changed, I felt myself too junior to ask.
Hoodbhoy teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
Headline: Abdus Salam in China
Source: The Dawn, Pakistan