Ghosts in the ‘God particle’

Back in December, I highlighted a story about how scientists really don’t like the terminology of “God particle” to describe a theoretical subatomic particle called the Higgs boson. But the battle seems to be lost and reporters know that “God particle” is so much sexier than Higgs boson. Last week physicists in Switzerland said they would soon prove the particle’s existence and we saw another round of stories using the terminology.

But the Associated Press ran a fantastic story with a quality, if troubling, religion angle. The headline at the Washington Post was:

Pakistan shuns prize-winning physicist linked to ‘God particle’ because of religious beliefs

The story explains the situation immediately:

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate helped develop the theoretical framework that led to the apparent discovery of the subatomic “God particle” last week, yet his legacy has been largely scorned in his homeland because of his religious affiliation.

It’s a sign of the growing Islamic extremism in his country.

Adbus Salam, who died in 1996, was once hailed as a national hero for his pioneering work in physics and work that guided the early stages of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Now his name is even stricken from school textbooks because he was a member of the Ahmadi sect that has been persecuted by the government and targeted by Taliban militants, who view them as heretics.

The story explains that Pakistan’s religious minorities, including Shiite Muslims, Christians and Hindus, have suffered as certain “hard-line” interpretations of Islam have gained ground. We’re told that Pakistan is a majority Sunni country. We learn about Salam and his work. The article says that Higgs boson was “named after a British physicist.” That’s totally true but — fun fact — bosons are named after Hindu Indian scientist Satyendra Bose.

Salam was very influential in Pakisan during the 1960s and 1970s — chief scientific adviser to the president, setting up the country’s space agency and institute for nuclear science, assisting in the early stages of nuclear bomb-making, etc. But then Pakistan’s parliament ruled that the 3 million Ahmadis in Pakistan were not to be considered Muslim by law. The story explains the basis and impact of the ruling here:

Ahmadis believe their spiritual leader, Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who died in 1908, was a prophet of God — a position rejected by the government in response to a mass movement led by Pakistan’s major Islamic parties. Islam considers Muhammad the last prophet and those who subsequently declared themselves prophets as heretics.

All Pakistani passport applicants must sign a section saying the Ahmadi faith’s founder was an “impostor” and his followers are “non-Muslims.” Ahmadis are prevented by law in Pakistan to “pose” as Muslims, declare their faith publicly, call their places of worship mosques or perform the Muslim call to prayer. They can be punished with prison and even death.

Salam resigned from his government posts and eventually moved to Europe to continue his work. We learn that Pakistan barely celebrated his Nobel. That the country doesn’t mention him in many textbooks. By contrast, a traditional Muslim physicist who helped spread nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya is hailed as a hero. A university had to cancel a lecture from Salam because “Islamist student activists” threatened to break his legs. The story ends:

The president who honored Salam would later go on to intensify persecution of Ahmadis.

Salam was targeted even after his death. His body was returned to Pakistan in 1996 after he died in Oxford, England, and was buried under a gravestone that read “First Muslim Nobel Laureate,” but a local magistrate ordered the word “Muslim” to be erased, said Hoodbhoy.

We also are reminded about Taliban killing 80 people in attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore last year and that threats are ongoing.

You can see how the tombstone was desecrated in the above image from Wikipedia.


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  • David Rupert

    Just got to love those peace loving peoples!
    I am still amazed that the media treats this faith with such kid-gloves when it just seems so outlandish.

  • Matt

    That’s a very good article. But I would question the line “It’s a sign of the growing Islamic extremism in his country.” State persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan began in 1974, so don’t these events show that Islamic extremism has been the norm for decades, rather than that it is “growing”?

  • sk

    If he wasn’t considered Muslim, why was he allowed to be buried in a Muslim graveyard?

  • AuthenticBioethics

    If anyone reads Arabic, could you verify that the Arabic inscription has been likewise edited? One can still see the outline of the letters in English, but there appears to be no such place in the Arabic. Just wondering.

    Ironically, the English also notes that he had “devout submission to the order of the Jamaat,” which as far as I can tell is the Islamist political party in Pakistan.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, the level of silliness about the Higgs Boson is outstanding. Rather than (the what I expected) focus on Islam, I would have focused on the subject matter covered by this blog post if I had been writing for GR.

    Does the Higgs Boson Discovery Resolve the Religion-Science Debate?

    In the huge hype that has broken out over the last few days, you can see the whole pattern of religion-science discussions in microcosm:

    Scientists make an important discovery. They are exuberant — and rightfully so: people work a lifetime for moments like this.

    Scientists start saying big things about where this takes science. The first comments are about breakthroughs in particle physics. But as the champagne kicks in, you start to hear slurry-tongued statements about how the Higgs search shows the superiority of physics over all other forms of knowledge.

    Then the pundits step in. “No,” says the one group, “the God-particle reminds us that creation is ultimately in the hands of God; we will never overcome the fundamental mystery of our origins.” “Wrong,” retorts the other group, “this week represents the triumph of humanism. There is absolutely no need for God in the age of science.”

    All hell breaks lose. “There’s no God (damn) particle,” writes Tony Phillips. “The Higgs boson is another nail in the coffin of religion,” expounds Oxford’s Peter Atkins on BBC. “Will the Higgs boson give rise to a new religion, a new god?” asks the Hindustan Times.

  • sari

    Rather than a rise in Muslim extremism, this article demonstrates that religion and politics are and have been inextricably intertwined in Pakistan. We tend to forget (or ignore) that the American system of church/state separation reflects an anomaly, not the norm.

  • asshur

    I know usually GR is centered in english speaking press. Otherwise I could have pointed to a couple of, absolutely delirious, spanish articles on behalf of the Godd*mn particle -its original name- and religion.
    It seems some have taken the “God particle” moniker as literal … here the analphabetism in matters science and religion is funnily interwined

    I hold a degree in Physics -but never worked in the field- It does not warrant that I understand the full implications of the recent discovery (have not looked at particle physics since the mid eighties) but really the only effect re religion that i can muster is that, to some extent, validating -at least partially- the standard model indirectly is a further proof that the “Big Bang” theory is still the best choiche for explaining the origin of the Universe. And the first proponent of the last was a Fr. Joseph Lemaitre SJ (when that two characters meant something)

  • Julia


    The irony that Lemaitre came up with the Big Bang theory is just precious. Recently I saw a photo of him standing next to Einstein.

    As I understand it, the so-called God particle is supposed to be what finally links together gravity, mass, dark matter, etc. into a unified theory of how the universe works. It isn’t really about God qua God at all.

  • asshur

    “Big Bang” met at first with serious resistence not only on technical reasons (and there were a lot of them at first), but also because it sounded “too religious”. F.i. IIRC Fred Hoyle (proponent of an alternative model) openly acknowledged that as one of the reasons they searched for an alternative

    The Higgs boson discovery (IIRC) implies that three of the four basic forces can be unified into a single model valid at extremely high energies (the first moments of the universe) still leaving gravity out. Rumors are that the discovery has some unexpected corners, and that even the teoretical underpinnings are not closed by this experiment … good time for theoretical physicits

    To understand why a particle is important into this i would recommend for the general reader an old booklet by one of the fathers of the standard model, Steven Weinberg, the First Three Minutes of the Universe

  • Mollie

    Keep conversation focused on journalism and not big bang, bosons or other off-topic comments.

  • Chris Atwood

    One issue in the Salam article that would have been very timely to bring up is the “Ahmadiyya is to Islam as Mormononism is to Christianity” angle. In both cases you have a new version of an old faith which its adherents see as consistent with it, but which the great majority of the old faith’s adherents do not.

    And then there’s the difference between the legal significance of this assertion where religion has official status (Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia in differing degrees have all legally “de-Islamized” Ahamdis) and where it doesn’t (USA, at least not any more, although the 19th century might be different).

  • John M.

    I thought the WaPo article was overall pretty good, thanks for highlighting it, Mollie. These types of internecine discussions about who is/isn’t Muslim/Jewish/Christian are extremely difficult for the press to cover, and the only place I think this article really flubbed it was referring to A.Q. Khan as an unqualified “Muslim”, in contrast to Dr. Salam.

    However, the WaPo misspelled Dr. Abdus Salam’s name. They called him Dr. Adbus Salam. Transliteration from Arabic can be very tricky, particularly with names (Qaddaffi, anyone?), but they didn’t blow it on the liason, they just transposed two otherwise unassuming letters in his name. Whoops.

    Oh, and AuthenticBioethics, the top half of the tombstone is in Urdu, not Arabic, but more’s the pity for all of us, I only know enough Urdu to be able to identify it as Urdu, I can’t translate it, or even really follow it. And “Jamaat” is a word derived from Arabic that loosely means “congregation” or “fellowship,” I believe almost always with a religious connotation. It’s very likely that the Ahmadis use this term as well as Islamist Sunnis.


  • Adnan

    Peace and Blessings of Allah be up on you all,
    i know arabic and urdu both languages and i am an Ahamdi
    so talking about Dr. Abdul Salam his grave is in Ahamdi Graveyard
    there is a general misconception about Ahamdis, we are true Muslims and believe in the very true teachings of Islam which teach peace, love and brotherhood.
    the word “jamat” means community and we use this word for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community whose motto is “Love for All, Hatred for None”

  • http://islam MuhammedSalikBurme

    We lost very big Muslim Scientiest but Pakistan they don’t know how much lost? They only know Dr Abdul Salam is Ahmai(socall none Muslim)we know next generation always Rember Dr Abdul Salam.Then Pakistan you know Dr Abdul Salam never die He always alive,He always alive.Dr Abdul Salam Zindabad

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