A physicist’s journey

January 24, 2021

A look at the exceptional life of physicist Riazuddin and his contribution to the development of physics and sciences in Pakistan

Riazuddin, Fayyazuddin, and Pervez Hoodbhoy relaxing at the tea huts, Quaid-i-Azam University, 2012.

These are the bare bones of a memoir, straightforwardly related and bereft of emotion, detail, or humour. If you are looking for literary finery, go elsewhere. This slim volume comes from a self-effacing man so soft spoken that just to hear him you sometimes had to lean forward. His full name was Riazuddin, a single word appropriate for a man of very few words; in fact, so few that apart from those who interacted with him scarcely has a Pakistani heard of him. When he passed away in 2013 in Islamabad at age 82, his death merited no more than a few newspaper lines and a small reference meeting at the Physics Department of Quaid-i-Azam University – of which he was the founder. Today nothing in that department, or in the nearby National Centre for Physics that he also founded, stands in memory.

Why, then, should one read his rather dull memoirs? The simple answer is: it’s because of who Riazuddin was. And, equally, because of the stories he has to tell – ones that none but he could have told.

It can be fairly said that in Pakistan’s entire 74 years of history, the world of highly sophisticated science has known only two Pakistanis. One, of course, is Abdus Salam. The other is Riazuddin, who received his PhD in physics under Salam from the University of Cambridge. On his thesis committee was the famous astrophysicist, Sir Fred Hoyle, the first to discover how stars generate energy. Theirs was the world of high-brow top-notch physics – that which uses sophisticated mathematical tools to study the subatomic constituents of matter and the deep laws of nature. Upon Riazuddin’s death, leading science news journals across the world carried obituaries as some of the high priests of particle physics paid homage – a rare honour not accorded to any other Pakistani except Salam.

For the 1970s’ generation of physicists, Riazuddin’s book Theory of Weak Interactions in Particle Physics (coauthored with CP Ryan and Robert E Marshak) was something of a bible. It was a reference work that carried everything that was important in that then-new and difficult field. Since those times much has changed and superstrings have led to revolutionary new insights into the nature of matter. Nevertheless another major achievement of Riazuddin – known as the KSFR relation – remains astonishingly relevant today and one still does not understand why it works so well. In that equation R stands for Riazuddin while F is for Fayyazuddin, his identical twin brother and co-editor of these Memoirs.

Sometime in 1970, while I was a sophomore at MIT and had barely crossed twenty, a physics professor learned that I was from Pakistan. Did I know Riazuddin, he asked? No, I had not heard the name. Little did I know that just three years later I would be his junior colleague at Quaid-i-Azam University, then known as the University of Islamabad. Nor could I have known that just around then he had been secretly tasked to design Pakistan’s atomic bomb. In 1999, a year after Pakistan tested six nuclear devices, Riazuddin received Pakistan’s highest civil award, the Hilal-i-Pakistan.

From Ludhiana to Lahore

Born in Ludhiana in 1930, it was easy to mistake Riazuddin for Fayyazuddin – and vice versa. Like other lower middle class Muslim children living in a religiously divided community, they attended the Islamia High School run by the Anjuman-i-Islamia philanthropy. Muslims in united India from Mughal times had no tradition of scholarly learning and were both English-averse and science-averse. This school had no notable alumni. It was similar to the town’s single public and two Hindu-run schools. Nothing suggested that these two boys squatting on floor mats, laboriously writing Urdu alphabets on wooden tablets were to become anything special.

In March 1947, as the creation of Pakistan drew close, communal riots bloodied the Punjab. From these sparse memoirs we learn little of those terrible times except for a single line – that the family entered Pakistan from the Wagha border in early October. Like so many other refugees they came empty-handed. The boys enrolled at Lahore’s MAO College but soon moved to Government College where they performed well but not spectacularly so. A teacher suggested that Riazuddin study physics rather than engineering. Riazuddin agreed and Fayyazuddin followed.

This rather uninteresting situation changed dramatically in 1951 when Salam came to town. Then twenty five, Salam was a rising star in the world of high-brow physics having just solved an important problem in quantum field theory, a newly emerging subject that was beyond the comprehension of all but the elite among physicists of the time. For his research on “overlapping divergences”, Salam was awarded the Adams Prize and offered a professorship at Cambridge University. He declined the offer and signed up instead as a professor of mathematics at Government College.

In Lahore, one of Salam’s first initiatives was to introduce a course in quantum mechanics at Punjab University. Drawn by his reputation, students flocked to it but only Riazuddin and Fayyazuddin could survive the tough mathematics involved. A disheartened Salam never taught the course again. But he had already identified the twins to be the best and brightest of those he encountered. Riazuddin was later invited to become his PhD student at Cambridge. Helped by Salam, Fayyazuddin went to Imperial College, London, a couple of years later.

The bomb years

Weeks after the fall of Dacca in December 1971, Bhutto held a meeting in Multan where he invited Pakistani scientists to make a nuclear weapon. It was to avenge national humiliation and ensure that India would never attack Pakistan ever again. Abdus Salam was present at the meeting as was Fayyazuddin but Riazuddin was then abroad. None of those who had gathered there had any kind of weapons experience, including Salam.

Nevertheless, Bhutto had clearly invited some of the right people. Thirty years earlier the first nuclear bomb had been conceived and designed by world’s finest theoretical physicists. It was then a stunning demonstration of the power of physics and mathematics. However with the passage of time, understanding the nuclear chain reaction was no longer the mystery it had once been. More and more nations would become capable of making bombs. North Korea is the latest and Iran can easily do so unless external forces move to stop it.

These otherwise dry Memoirs provide invaluable insight into how Pakistan began its pursuit of the bomb. After Fayyazuddin briefed his brother, Riazuddin was summoned by Salam in early 1973 to Trieste (Italy) at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics. He was the only physicist living in Pakistan with the physics/mathematics background and capability to accomplish this task. Salam instructed him to meet with Munir Ahmad Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, in Islamabad. Also, he was told to start theoretical investigations relevant to bomb physics. Immediately thereafter, Riazuddin began studying the Manhattan Project Report. This contained critical information of the United States 1940s’ effort to develop atomic bombs, those which were subsequently dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The secret document had by then been declassified by the US government. Absorbing various books and other nuclear physics papers, Riazuddin quickly moved up the learning curve.

I cannot repeat here in entirety my obituary article of 2013, The Man Who Designed Pakistan’s Bomb Just Died – And Nobody Noticed. It was based upon preliminary parts of the Memoirs that Riazuddin had provided to me before his death, as well as information from Fayyazuddin and other sources. He reached out to me in spite of my being on the opposite side – that which opposes the acquisition of nuclear weapons by every country, including Pakistan.

In a nutshell, using the technical literature and adding in certain parts of his own knowledge, Riazuddin did seminal calculations for designing a nuclear device. He found out how to use just the smallest possible amount (about 20 kg) of the then extremely scarce U-235 material, worked on a mechanism for triggering the bomb, and calculated the explosive yield for a variety of theoretical designs. He did not do this alone. Instead he created a group around himself that included his former PhD student, Masud Ahmad. The rest of the effort needed engineering support. Much of this came from the help that the Chinese provided.

Some would argue that Pakistan would have got the bomb regardless of Riazuddin and his group. That is probably true, but it would have been delayed and dependence on the Chinese would have been still greater. In October 2003 the Americans had confiscated centrifuges and detailed nuclear weapon drawings with Chinese inscriptions when they intercepted the Libya-bound ship BBC Cargo. Subsequently, Gen Musharraf made Dr AQ Khan apologise publicly on PTV for having engaged in nuclear smuggling.

I personally was unsurprised by the China connection. In fact, around 1994 or 1995, Munir Ahmad Khan – who by then had retired as PAEC chairman – had whispered this to me under conditions of strict confidentiality. As we sipped tea in his drawing room, he said that two visiting American senators had angrily told him that the United States was fully aware of Pakistan’s possession of detailed Chinese help as well as bomb blueprints and drawings. To show that he had proof, one senator threw down a sheaf of drawings on the sofa in response to Khan’s denials.

Riazuddin never laid any claim to fathering the bomb – a job that requires the efforts of many and is now mostly a matter of technology rather than science. After setting the nuclear ball rolling he stepped aside to pursue his real interest, particle physics, and continued to write physics research papers until he almost reached his deathbed. Unlike those “nuclear heroes” who carried megaphones, he had straightforwardly approached the task given to him – that of constructing a weapon with only 20 kg of U-235. He did so as any good physicist might have done. The Chinese drawings probably came many years after Riazuddin disengaged from the bomb project. Even if they had come earlier, they would have been useless without a sound understanding of the underlying theory which no one else had in Pakistan. The Libyans, given the same drawings, could do nothing with them. Moreover, tuning weapons for different yields or exploring different warhead geometries and options without developing the underlying theory would have been impossible.

Was Riazuddin proud of what he had done? He certainly did accept the Hilal-i-Imtiaz. That the Memoirs are mostly about the bomb shows that he wanted his efforts to be remembered. But, unlike other makers of the bomb, he saw it as a necessary evil and the 1998 tests as no cause for jubilation. In fact, almost immediately he started worrying about the consequences of an India-Pakistan arms race. Appendix 5.1 of the Memoirs is a note he sent to then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif after the tests: now that the atomic age had arrived, Pakistan and India should negotiate differences rather than fight. Being utterly discreet, Riazuddin never spoke about nuclear weapons and his own role or worries before his colleagues.

In contrast, twin-brother Fayyazuddin, a good physicist in his own right, was morally opposed to a weapon of mass destruction and had never expressed the slightest interest in working on the bomb. Although the brothers were like two peas from the same pod – and their wives were sisters – the two were different. I wonder if they ever talked about this aspect of their lives. The reader gets not even a hint about this from these Memoirs.

There is a second reason why we should be grateful that Riazuddin picked up a pen to write about himself towards the end of his life. He was able to show that things could actually be made to work in Pakistan and also to point out why they eventually fell apart.

Triumphs and disappointments

In 1973, at age 23 with two bachelor’s degrees in hand as well as a master’s degree, I turned up at the chairman’s office of Islamabad University. Months earlier while at MIT, I had already received an official letter from the University appointing me assistant professor of physics. But the physics chairman took one look at me and told me to go away. Instead he sent me to see the vice-chancellor, Dr Kaneez Yousuf, who also refused to accept my appointment. My long unkempt beard and lack of moustache had put her off and, in a confidential note to the University’s registrar, she wrote that I appeared to be an agent of the Jamaat-i-Islami in pay of the CIA. Riazuddin, as the department’s founder, was asked to set up a committee to interview me and decide on my case. It took them 10 minutes to appoint me as lecturer, one step down from assistant lecturer for which a PhD was mandatory. I instantly agreed.

The Department of Physics at Quaid-i-Azam University is unique in Pakistan. In its heyday, it was the only one that could reach the heights of a normal science department at a moderately good US or British university. Although it has long since lapsed into mediocrity, achieving such excellence for even a few years shows how the right person at the right time can make a difference. That right person was Riazuddin who brought along with him 8-10 other physicists who stayed as the backbone of the department for many years.

The Memoirs tell us just how that happened but Riazuddin himself does not say much about it. Instead, the editors let us know through an essay by one of the pioneers, Faheem Hussain (1942-2009), who tells us how in the excitement of 1966-1968 he and others were enthused by the Salam-Riazuddin combination into returning to Pakistan from universities in the UK, Canada, and US. Most were 28-30 and smart. With this critical mass they were able to sustain a research group that commanded international attention. India knows dozens of such groups but since 1947 Pakistan has had only one in any field of science.

The decline and dispersal of Riazuddin’s group came slowly but surely. The rot in the QAU Physics Department had set in, taking a decade or two before the endpoint was reached. Since then that department – nay QAU itself – has become lifeless and without intellectual vigour. This is despite the number of professors and students increasing manifold and the number of so-called research publications having increased dramatically after 2002. Mistreated by an arrogant vice-chancellor, Riazuddin chose to resign and left for a quiet professorship in Saudi Arabia that lasted many years.

The reasons for the demise of this once-vigorous department were several: successive vice-chancellors and administrations ignorant of what makes a university worth the name; recruitment of incompetent persons who would soon exert a poisonous influence in departmental affairs; the departure of Bengali physicists after 1971; and lucrative job openings in the Middle East after the 1973 oil bonanza. In the absence of an intellectual culture, Pakistan could not sustain what had been a good beginning.

National Centre for Physics

A second project that also began well but ultimately ended in disappointment was Riazuddin’s initiative to establish the National Centre for Physics on the Quaid-i-Azam University campus. He did so by prevailing upon a vice-chancellor, Dr Tariq Siddiqui, who had once been his student. Though underfunded, the NCP started off in 1999 on modest temporary premises on the QAU campus. The goal was to eventually duplicate, albeit on a far smaller scale, Salam’s ICTP in Italy. Researchers from around Pakistan – and hopefully the world, at some later time – would come there to work in an open, cordial, and intellectually vibrant atmosphere on cutting-edge scientific problems.

At first things seemed to be going well and a modest amount of research work was initiated. But QAU had little money to spare from its own resources. Riazuddin had no recourse except to apply to those who held the national purse for science – the nuclear weapon establishment for which he had worked back in the 1970s. But because he drank from a poisoned chalice, he steadily lost control to high officials from defence organisations and the army. Mean-spirited mediocre men would soon sideline him.

The Memoirs contain a significant amount of material on one particular battle that Riazuddin fought and lost. It concerns the Pelletron machine, an episode in which I too was involved. The story goes something like this.

In 2006, for unclear reasons, Riazuddin’s bosses at the NCP took fancy to a particular kind of machine known as a Van de Graaf accelerator or Pelletron. This machine had been used in the early days of nuclear research and - although it had doubtful research utility - came with a hefty price tag of over Rs 400 million. Additionally, it was so massive that it required a separate building. The bosses decided to extract the required sum from the Higher Education Commission which was then flush with cash with Dr Atta-ur-Rahman sitting at the purse strings. Upon reading in the newspapers I discovered that this albatross was being purchased in the name of my department. Immediately I protested to Dr Rahman who defended the plan in a phone conversation and told me that Riazuddin had signed off on the proposal. Horrified, I called Riazuddin. He admitted to me that he had succumbed to pressure “from above”.

But to his credit Riazuddin then decided to stand up and fight against importing a useless piece of costly junk. Things came to a head when the peeved czars of the nuclear establishment brought in their troops. Nearly 150 technical personnel from the PAEC, the KRL, and the NESCOM filled the auditorium of the Physics Department of Quaid-i-Azam University in 2007. None among them knew anything about the scientific purposes of the Pelletron nor cared. They came solely with instructions to abuse and insult Riazuddin and myself, often using crude language. The short of it: the Pelletron was imported and installed by a foreign team. With no significant scientific output, it stands at the NCP as a monument to shortsightedness and willful waste. A second one, installed at Government College, Lahore, saw a similar fate.

Riazuddin paid a high price for his dissidence, quiet though it was. In 2007, the NCP underwent a character change and he was edged out as director. No longer was it an open institution. Instead, it now bristles with fearsome fortifications and an ambience befitting a military camp. It has become a parking lot for retired army officers and those from the weapons establishment, none of whom can be called real physicists. Local professors and students have been frightened away as have been the few visiting scientists from other countries. With so much dead wood, and in spite of a so-called collaboration with the CERN, the NCP offers little of intellectual value and the original purpose stands defeated.


These Memoirs do not do justice to the richness of thought of an individual endowed by nature with exceptional intelligence and abilities. He could have told us so much more about himself including his experiences from Partition onward to his studies at Government College and Punjab University. One would have liked to know about his interactions with the world’s top physicists, and his times at the QAU and the NCP. But one should not complain – Riazuddin could have left us without telling us anything. In that case we would have been poorer on multiple counts.

For one, coming from a man of manifest simplicity and honesty, his account of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme’s earliest days is absolutely authentic and free of embellishments. While my colleagues and I were unaware of the details until he finally wrote his memoirs, they tally well with the hearsay of 40-50 years ago. Perhaps he wrote them to debunk the exaggerations and lies emanating from those who rushed to claim credit. While he never made any claim at fathering the Pakistani Bomb, and had mixed feelings about his own role, his strictly scientific approach makes him unique among all those who were involved. Sadly, the only work for which Pakistan rewarded him was on the bomb. His scientific works as well as his integrity, simplicity, dedication and generosity have counted for little.

There is a second reason why we should be grateful that Riazuddin picked up a pen to write about himself towards the end of his life. He was able to show that things could actually be made to work in Pakistan and also to point out why they eventually fell apart. There are strong lessons to be learned from his admonitions for those who think that throwing money around will somehow cause science to spring forth from barren soil. Like his mentor Salam, Riazuddin saw science as an enzyme of hope that would someday eliminate poverty and bring Pakistan into the front line of nations. The sparse recognition given to these two individuals tells us that Pakistan has been unable to recognise its ablest and best.

Memoirs of Riazuddin – A Physicist’s Journey

Edited by: Fayyazuddin and M Jamil Aslam

Publisher: Oxford University Press (Pakistan), 2020

Pages: 284

Price: Rs895

The author is an Islamabad based physicist and writer.

A physicist’s journey: A look at physicist Riazuddin's life and his contribution to Pakistan