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Abdus Salam


Rushworth M. Kidder

Courtesy: C.H. Lai, editor, IDEALS AND REALITIES: SELECTED ESSAYS OF ABDUS SALAM, (Singapore: World Scientific; 2nd ed. 1987), pp. 361-365.
 

Prof. Abdus Salam



The International Centre for Theoretical Physics perches on apine-covered slope overlooking the sapphire-blue Adriatic. But the directors's office looks ou t the back into the side of a hill. The location seems somehow in character for Abdus Salam, whose purpose lies less with elegant vistas than with little-known corners of the world -and who, despite his Nobel Prize for Physics, typically describes himself as "a humble research physicist from a developing country [Pakistan]."

Asked about his agenda for the next century, he responds without hesitation. "The real issue, to my mind," he says, "is the great divide between the South and the North," referring to those regions of the globe roughly representing the developing and the developed nations.

Although he speaks softly -from a desk chair facing a framed photo- graph of Albert Einstein and a blackboard chalked with mathematical formulas -his words carry fervor.

This "great divide " between the developing world and the industrial nations, he explains, arises from the fact that each side has a completely different set of problems. The major 2lst-century issue facing the North, he says, is the arms race and the threat of nuclear warfare. The problem facing the South is the threat of starvation and utter poverty.

Picking up a copy of Ideals and Realities, a collection of his essays, he turns to a piece he wrote about Al Asuli, an 11th-century Islamic physician. Al Asuli, he says, divided the problems of humanity into diseases of the rich and diseases of the poor .

If Al Asuli were alive today, Dr .Salam says, he would make the same distinction. "Half his treatise would speak of the one affliction of humanity - the psychosis of nuclear annihilation," he says. "The other half would be concerned with the one affliction of the poor - their hunger and near-starvation. He might perhaps add that the two afflictions spring from a common cause -the excess of science in one case and the lack of science in the other."

For Salam, the operative word here is "science" -which he is careful to distinguish from "technology," or the application of scientific knowledge to human problems. One great difficulty for the developing world, he explains, is the misplaced assumption that sharing the latest in Western machinery , communications, and transportation -technology transfer -will be a panacea for the South.

"Technology transfer is something the South has asked for," Salam says, "and the North is resisting. Quite rightly. I don't blame [ the North] for one second for not giving technology as such. Why should you ? Why should anybody part with things that nobody else has helped to create?"

"That 's where the bread and butter is concerned," he adds, referring to the central role that that the sale of technology plays in the economies of the industrial nations.

Instead of technology transfer, Salam says, the South in the coming century should be asking for a transfer of the basic science out of which technologies can spring. " I wish that the North could decide to give the South as much science as possible." Why this insistence on science?" Because "science is the basis of technology in the present day ." He cites the case of Japan. Over the years the Japanese invested heavily in learning "all of science at a very high level. And then they were really successful in their technology."

Similar things are beginning to happen, he says, in five of the developing nations: Argentina, Brazil, China, India, and South Korea. He is especially impressed by the latter country, which he recently visited.

"They took me straight away to the television studios [for a] 2*-hour- long interview," he recalls, "in which they said, 'We have made it a national objective to win Nobel prizes. Can you give us advice?' "

"I told them they were being silly," he says with a chuckle, adding that "they mayor may not get Nobel prizes." But he notes with approval that "the very fact that they made it a national objective is a very important thing. That means that they will stock up their libraries, they'll get scientific literature, they'll fund a lot of fellowships, they'll do everything possible to make themselves into a scientifically advanced country.

And that, he suggests, will do more for South Korea than any amount of reliance on Western technology .

As he looks forward into the 21st century, Salam distinguishes several kinds of science that will be practiced. The first he calls "science for science 's sake " - the most basic and theoretical research, producing discoveries that sometimes go unappreciated for decades. In general, he says, such research is "probably in a healthy state," despite the never- ending battle to pay for it.

No Science for the Poor

"Then there's science for man's sake," he says, a category he breaks down into three parts: "global science, science for the rich countries, (and] science for the poor countries."

"Science for the poor doesn't exist, simply doesn't exist," he laments -although he notes that the poor countries have plenty of problems that science could help resolve. He cites the current medical concern over AIDS ( acquired immune deficiency syndrome ): " As long as it remained in Haiti, nobody even bothered about it." Now that it has come to Europe and America, "it will get the attention it deserves."

"It always deserved that attention," he adds wryly.

And what about science for the rich countries? That, he says, gets entangled in defence spending -which, he says, accounts for half of all research spending in the developed world.

For Salam, in fact, the real threat of the nuclear arms race is not that it might ultimate in holocaust. It is that swelling defence costs will sap resources needed to combat the rest of humanity's problems. It's a line of argument, he says, elaborated by President Dwight Eisenhower. "Eisenhower (made] it very clear that every single B-52 bomber that is made in America is depriving not only the poor in the Third World, but also Americans, of sustenance, of shelter, of aid."

"If Eisenhower were alive, he would be just aghast " at current levels of defence spending and the lack of attention to the developing world. Referring to massive defence spending in the North and developing world poverty, Salam says: "Unless you are conscious that the two problems are connected, and that (the developed nations] are squandering the wealth of this world -not only the wealth of this world but also the time and the energies of its scientists and its technologists, which could be used toward bettering humanity -you'll never-get to grips with " the basic challenge facing the 21st century.

But what about the peacetime spinoffs that arise from defence- based research? "The statement that defence expenditures have 'fallout' is rubbish, total rubbish," Salam says flatly. " And the statement that since you invest in 'star wars' you will do your toothpaste better is [ also ] total rubbish."

What's really needed, says Salam, is not the 'fallout' from defence projects bu t a concentrated effort to study some of the developing world's most pressing problems -starvation, for example. Although Salam supports the idea of food aid for developing nations, he sees it as only a "short-term business." The root of the problem is "food deficiency, drought, and desertification."

The Basic Problem

"This is the basic problem to be solved scientifically ," he says. But across much of the developing world, he points out, "there are no scientific studies at all of climate [and] of the underground water situation in the deserts -whether there are underground lakes, and so on." The lack of such studies -which are common enough in the developed countries - supports his contention that "science for the rich " is something quite different from "science for the poor."

One problem in conducting such studies, however, is that they frequently transcend national boundaries.

For that reason, they fall under Salam's third heading of "global science" - the study of the largest interdisciplinary and international issues concerning the global environment.

On this point, he expresses profound pessimism. "There's no such thing as global science as a subject," he complains. Even the disappearance of rain forests, which is commanding increased public attention, is not being considered in global terms.

"People do not take [the rain forest] as a global asset," he laments. "People take it as a problem of Brazil, a problem of Malaysia. How many governments are willing to spend money on that sort of thing? None. Zero." The problem is the lack of "the scientific infrastructure to look at the global problems."

"Everybody seems to be for himself," he says sadly. "There is no global vision at all. It's the lack of global vision that worries me, really. It's the issue of globalism which is missing in science, which is missing in the food problem, which is missing in the health problem." What is needed is "a vision of a sort which I don't see any statesman having.

From his position as an administrator, Salam says he clearly sees the need for sources of funding that would encourage such globalism. He adds that such funds, if they are to come, will have to come from the developed world.

But he again rejects as "rubbish " - one of his favourite words - the idea that "if you save funds from nuclear [arms limitation] you will put them into the welfare of mankind." The temptation, he says, will be for the rich countries simply to funnel the savings back into tax relief - "making the rich richer and the poor hungry man 's soul sink lower."

"The whole attitude has to become very different," he notes.

Why Turmoil could Spread

And if the "great divide" between the rich and poor nations is not closed? Salam says that it will be increasingly "hard to ignore [the developing countries'] problems in the 21st century" for two reasons.

First, he says, the North will no longer be able to "insulate itself" politically from the South. If the gap is not narrowed, he says, "What will happen is what is happening already in the Third World" -turmoil, military governments, unrest, and "people on top of each other."

Second, he notes that the world-wide environment "may be affected by lack of attention to the global problems and to scientific globalism."

"In that sense," he says, "no parts of the world are going to be safe from the feeling of turmoil. At the moment, it doesn't [seem to] affect Americans to have starving Africans at their hands. They may very well say, 'Well, if they want to starve, let them starve.'"

"But I don't think man lives like this," he says. Speaking of rock star Bob Geldof's efforts to raise money for African famine relief, he says, "I think the Geldofs of this world make their point when they show what can be done in a small way."

What, then, does he hope will close the gap? He would like to see industrial nations "specialise" in providing the scientific training to elevate the developing nations. " For example, higher education may be taken up by Britain and the United States. The Russians may take up lower education. The Japanese and the Germans will be asked to. do technology."

"That," he concludes, "will be my vision of the future."

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