A Nobel Prize-winning scientist, whose work “paved the way” for the landmark discovery of the Higgs boson (AKA, the “God particle”), has finally been honoured with a blue plaque at his home of almost four decades.
Abdus Salam, who passed away in 1996, was a hugely influential physicist. Not only was he responsible for the creation of Imperial College’s world-class theoretical physics department, his contribution to the electroweak unification theory of particle physics — Encyclopedia Britannica has a good primer here — netted him and his colleagues the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics. This theory laid the groundwork for the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, the subatomic particle responsible for giving mass to other particles.
Born in a region of western Punjab that is now part of Pakistan, Salam moved to the UK to study at Cambridge, receiving his PhD in theoretical physics from St John’s College in 1952. A brief stint teaching in Pakistan followed, during which Salam — a member of the Ahmadiyya Islamic sect — faced religious persecution from both the government and Taliban militants.
Following anti-Ahmadi riots in Lahore, he returned to England and was appointed Professor of Applied Mathematics at Imperial College in 1957 — and bought a house on a quiet street in Putney, where his plaque now stands. However, he continued to advocate for scientists in developing countries, in what he called a “battle against the cruel imbalance of global wealth and resources”. In 1964, he founded the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, which provided research programmes for scientists from poverty-stricken countries, including Pakistan.
Not only was Salam the first Pakistani to win a Nobel Prize, but he was also — incredibly — the first-ever Muslim to win one in the sciences. Given his landmark achievements, it’s perhaps surprising that English Heritage waited until November 2020 to honour him with a Blue Plaque.
Historically, the blue plaque scheme has been utterly dire when it comes to recognising the achievements of ethnic minorities — as of 2016, only 4% of plaques were dedicated to Black and Asian people. Luckily, things are changing — albeit slowly. Out of the 11 plaques awarded in 2020, three honoured the contributions of BAME people, and over half the accolades went to women.
Want to help bring more untold histories to life? Click here.