Imperial College’s Professor Tom Kibble CBE FRS, Senior Research Fellow and Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics here gives some personal insights into former colleague Professor Abdus Salam, the first Muslim and only Pakistani Nobel Laureate, in an interview kindly given to Imperial AMSA.
AMSA: Professor Kibble, thank you for your time. I was wondering in what capacity did you first work with Salam?
Prof Kibble: Well I joined the department as a post doc fellow in 1959. Salam was of course the head of the Theoretical Physics Group, which at that time was in the Mathematics department, not in Physics.
AMSA: So what were your initial impressions of him?
Prof Kibble: He was enormously impressive. He was extremely lively, full of ideas… and he was also very friendly. He made me very welcome.
AMSA: I’ve read he held sessions were he’d let people come see him, and tell him their crazy ideas.
Prof Kibble: Well he had a lot of crazy ideas himself. He could think very fast, so he did have lots of ideas that he threw out, some of them turned out to be wrong for various reasons, and some of them turned to be…
AMSA: Nobel Prize winning?
Prof Kibble: Yes indeed, eventually!
AMSA: Can you tell me anything about his work ethic, about how hard he worked?
Prof Kibble: He worked extremely hard, there’s no doubt about that. I mean he always worked for example when he was in airports, on planes. He was always writing away… so he was very active indeed. Very hard working.
AMSA: To what degree is modern day physics indebted to his work?
Prof Kibble: Well it’s hard to evaluate. There’s no doubt that the development of the unified electroweak theory, which is now part of the standard model of particle physics, was a really major step forward. He was one of the leading players in that development. He did quite a lot of other things too, over the course of his career, many of which were highly influential in their own ways. So he was a big player in the field of physics.
AMSA: Do you think his legacy survives at Imperial much?
Prof Kibble: I think so, I think this group [Theoretical Physics Group] is a testament to his initiative, I mean he developed the group in the first place, and it has continued to be a very strong group throughout the years since then.
AMSA: Much has been said about his work here at Imperial and at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics over in Italy, but can you give me any more personal insights that you had into his personality, his character?
Prof Kibble: Well he was a very engaging personality, and a very lively one. He was also quite a skilled diplomat- I mean he managed to get the international community to support the International Centre even though most of the countries initially were against it.
AMSA: Do you know why that is?
Prof Kibble: Well it’s just a question of what you spend money on. But he was at that time the Pakistani delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency, to the committee of it, and he managed to persuade other people eventually to support this idea.
AMSA: He came from quite a poor background himself, so he perhaps he wanted to give something back?
Prof Kibble: Well yes, as you may know he went back to Pakistan for a while after he did his PhD and so on, and he really found it impossible to carry on with his research there, and he eventually came back to this country. And he very much felt that he wanted to help other people in a similar situation from having to make that… very difficult choice. And I think it has been quite successful in doing that actually.
AMSA: The centre’s still going quite strong isn’t it?
Prof Kibble: Oh yes.
AMSA: I’m from the same religious background [Islam Ahmadiyya] as Salam, one which believes quite firmly that science and religion go hand in hand. Did his religious or philosophical side ever shine through in any of your meetings with him?
Prof Kibble: I don’t think I ever discussed that side with him particularly. I don’t know whether you’ve talked to my colleague Chris Isham who actually was a student of his- I think he may have more to say about that.
AMSA: Lastly, do you have any message to the scientists of Imperial, in particular the physicists of Imperial that you’d like to put out there?
Prof Kibble: (Laughs). Well, just… don’t be afraid of pursuing slightly crazy ideas, because sometimes some of them will be right. But you need the other half, you need some judgment about what is actually promising… and Salam had both in large measure.
AMSA: Thank you very much.
Prof Kibble: You’re very welcome.