Unsung Father of Pakistan’s Nuclear Bomb


Dr.Pervez Hoodbhoy












Photo illustration by Minhaj Ahmed Rafi

Photo illustration by Minhaj Ahmed Rafi



When Riazuddin—that was his full name—died in September


At age 82 in Islamabad, international science organizations extolled his contributions to high-energy physics. But in Pakistan, except for a few newspaper lines and a small reference held a month later at Quaid-e-Azam University, where he had taught for decades, his passing was little noticed. In fact, very few Pakistanis have heard of the self-effacing and modest scientist who drove the early design and development of Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Riazuddin never laid any claim to fathering the bomb—a job that requires the efforts of many—and after setting the nuclear ball rolling, he stepped aside. But without his theoretical work, Pakistan’s much celebrated bomb makers, who knew little of the sophisticated physics critically needed to understand a fission explosion, would have been shooting in the dark.

A bomb maker and peacenik, conformist and rebel, quiet but firm, religious yet liberal, Riazuddin was one of a kind. Mentored by Dr. Abdus Salam, his seminal role in designing the bomb is known to none except a select few.

Spurred By Salam

Born in 1930, Riazuddin and his twin brother, Fayyazuddin, were often mistaken for each other. Like other lower middle class Muslim children living in religiously divided Ludhiana, they attended the Islamia High School run by the Anjuman-i-Islamia philanthropy. The school had no notable alumni, and 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 from India drew close, communal riots engulfed the Punjab. Neighbor turned against neighbor; the soil was drenched with blood as entire populations migrated from one side to the other. Riazuddin’s family entered Pakistan from the Wagah border in early October. The brothers 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 25, 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 top-ranking 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 Ph.D. student at Cambridge. Helped by Salam, Fayyazuddin went to Imperial College London a couple of years later.

The rest is history. As a student at MIT in the 1970s, I would sometimes be asked by my professors if I knew Riazuddin, to which I replied yes with some pride. His Ph.D. thesis in 1958 on certain regularities underlying nuclear forces had been noticed as a piece of important work, but his subsequent works elevated him to the ranks of the world’s better known physicists. His 1968 book, Theory of Weak Interactions in Particle Physics, coauthored with C. P. Ryan and Robert E. Marshak, became a bible for physicists.

Another exceptionally important piece of work by Riazuddin was done together with Fayyazuddin, who became a prominent physicist in his own right. This work became widely known in physics literature as the Kawarabayashi-Suzuki-Riazuddin-Fayyazuddin Relation. The Pakistani and Japanese authors had done their respective work separately. Kawarabayashi and Suzuki acknowledged that they only became aware of Riazuddin and Fayyazuddin’s work after they had completed their own. The Relation has stood the test of experiment, but even today continues to tantalize physicists—because it works so much better than it really should.

Atomic Enterprise

The story of Pakistan’s bomb, at the least its early beginnings, is well known by now. In the aftermath of Pakistan’s humiliating defeat in December 1971, President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto convened a meeting in Multan on Jan. 20, 1972, to which the country’s preeminent scientists were invited. Bhutto exhorted them to make an atomic bomb, a desire he had first articulated in 1965. Now, it would be a means of avenging national humiliation. I. H. Usmani, then chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, opined that making the bomb was beyond Pakistan’s reach. Bhutto did not want to hear that. Usmani was unceremoniously replaced by Munir Ahmad Khan, an ambitious young engineer with more diplomatic and personal skills than engineering or scientific expertise.

Usmani’s apprehension was reasonable. In 1972, the atomic bomb appeared well out of Pakistan’s reach. Creating the weapons that laid Hiroshima and Nagasaki to waste had required enormous effort and resources. The Manhattan Project, with its secret beginning in 1939, eventually employed nearly 130,000 people and cost about $26 billion. Some of the finest minds in physics gave their undivided attention to splitting the atom and, in the process, generated new technologies and scientific ideas. Even if Pakistan could somehow marshal the physical resources, how on earth could it get the required intellectual resources?

Time was on Pakistan’s side. Every passing year was putting the bomb within the grasp of more and more nations. Once concealed under multiple layers of secrecy, the science behind the bomb slowly started to make its way out into the open in scientific literature. By the 1970s an enormous amount of such information was accessible; and physicists with sufficient breadth of understanding could do the jobWhen Pakistan exploded its bomb in 1998, Riazuddin was pleased but not joyous. Riazuddin, who was then Pakistan’s leading physicist, was abroad pursuing a scientific collaboration at the time of the Multan meeting. But his twin, Fayyazuddin, was present on the occasion. He shared with me his recollections of Multan: Bhutto’s call to action was not as emotive as were his public speeches. But, he recalled with some amusement, how the assembled scientists sought to outbid each other as though at an auction. Tumbling over one another, each rose to declare that he could make the bomb even faster than the last speaker. At that time none had any idea of what this work entailed. A professor of experimental physics at Government College, Rafi Chaudhry, emphatically claimed that only experimental physicists could make the bomb. To this, Salam—who was there at Bhutto’s special invitation—responded by saying that the nuclear programs of the U.S., Britain, India, and other countries had all been headed by theoretical physicists.

Soon thereafter, perhaps around September 1972, Salam summoned Riazuddin to his office at the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. He had decided that Riazuddin was to design the bomb and, immediately upon his return to Islamabad, must create a group of theoretical physicists who would explore various technical aspects: the conceptual design for a nuclear device, calculation of the critical size of the fissile core, working out of a triggering mechanism, and finding the explosive yield for a variety of theoretical designs. Salam had already discussed the matter with Munir Ahmad Khan, with whom he had a warm relationship. Riazuddin should be given this task, Salam said. Khan agreed; and Riazuddin dutifully complied.

Riazuddin set about his assigned task by scouring available literature. He first went through the declassified Manhattan Project report. His scientific visits to the U.S. became more frequent. In 1973, he patiently studied documents at the Library of Congress, and purchased photocopies of a substantial number of unclassified or declassified reports from the Technical Information Service in Virginia. Of particular value was a series of lectures, declassified in 1965, delivered by nuclear physicist Robert Serber. The primer, addressed to members of the Los Alamos Laboratory, proved immensely valuable. While it did not contain detailed, classified information, it laid out all the conceptual issues and turned out to be an excellent starting point for Pakistan’s novice bomb designers. The total cost was only a few hundred dollars.

Armed with his recent findings, Riazuddin returned to brainstorm in 1973 with his colleagues at Islamabad University (later renamed Quaid-e-Azam University). By this time I was a junior faculty member there. The rest of us were dimly aware that something big was going on. We knew that the university was being used as a front organization for buying banned equipment. But it took decades for the whole truth to emerge.

From Riazuddin’s group, even those physicists who were in the know slowly dropped out. Fayyazuddin was not interested but Masud Ahmad, who had just obtained his Ph.D. in physics under the twins, became the second member of Riazuddin’s team. He went on to head a much bigger group eventually and was decorated with the Hilal-e-Imtiaz after the 1998 nuclear tests. The third member was Tufail Naseem, who assisted in programming the huge IBM360 located in the mathematics building.

The calculations Riazuddin carried out were tedious and complex. The plutonium route had been closed for now and Munir Ahmad Khan had tasked him with the following problem: his bomb must use the absolute minimum amount of highly-enriched uranium, and certainly no more than 20 kilograms. As a particle physicist he had a reasonable understanding of nuclear physics, but knew no hydrodynamics or how matter behaved under extreme compression. This knowledge is crucial for designing an implosion bomb because the high explosive surrounding the bomb’s core creates a shockwave that makes jelly out of even the toughest metal. These unfamiliar things had to be learned from books and papers. Like any good theoretical physicist, Riazuddin refused to accept what the computer churned out until he could verify it by using some clever analytical techniques.

Kicking the Closet

Pakistan’s successful nuclear tests of May 1998 were the joint result of many who worked on its myriad aspects—mining, conversion of uranium to uranium hexafluoride gas, enrichment, metallization, explosives, device fabrication, testing equipment, etc. But everything really starts with the design, the very first step of any complex project.

Arguably, the Chinese bomb design that Pakistan received sometime in the 1980s—and which the Americans say had been passed on by Dr. A. Q. Khan to the Libyans and Iranians—made the work easier. I do not think the Americans are lying when they say they confiscated the detailed bomb drawings in 2004 together with other nuclear materials from the ship BBC Cargo. In fact, around 1994 or 1995, Munir Ahmad Khan whispered to me confidentially, while we sipped tea in his drawing room, that the Americans had angrily told him that Pakistan possessed detailed Chinese blueprints and drawings. But even these drawings would have been nearly useless without a sound understanding of the underlying theory. The Libyans, given the same drawings, could do nothing with them. Moreover, tuning weapons for different yields or exploring different warhead options without sound theoretical physics would have been impossible.

Pakistan erupted in mass jubilation on May 28, 1998—the day the bomb came out of the nuclear closet. Pakistani videos and TV programs of the time show Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif congratulating cheering citizens. The euphoric press compared this historic moment with the birth of Pakistan in 1947. Pakistan’s bomb makers became national heroes. School children were handed free badges with mushroom clouds, poetry competitions around the bomb were organized, and bomb and missile replicas were planted in cities up and down the land (most of these replicas were removed during the Musharraf years). The bomb had attained mythical status; it became an article of faith for the guarantee of national security into perpetuity.

Riazuddin was pleased but not joyous. He accepted quiet congratulations from his former colleagues, with whom he had ceased to have a working relationship many years ago, and he also accepted a high government award, the Hilal-e-Imtiaz. For Riazuddin, the bomb was a necessary evil, and a cause for worry. Pakistan and India were heading toward a debilitating and dangerous arms race. What could be done about it?

Some weeks after the 1998 tests, Riazuddin wrote to Sharif pleading that Pakistan should now sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. The first would prohibit more test explosions, which in any case were not essential, while the second would limit the size of the nuclear arsenal and prevent a sharp upward spiral in warhead numbers, costs, and dangers. As quid pro quo, he said, Pakistan should insist on nuclear-power technology transfer from the West. He received no reply. Quite possibly Sharif did not know how much the bomb owed to Riazuddin.

Nuclear Burden

Riazuddin and Dr. Abdus Salam. Courtesy of FayyazuddinRiazuddin and Dr. Abdus Salam. Courtesy of Fayyazuddin

Many Pakistanis think that Salam was opposed to making the bomb. Some say he played no role in it. This is wrong—he did want Pakistan to have the bomb, but felt that he had more important things to do than work out its minute details. The job of theoretical physicists like Salam is to uncover nature’s secrets at the very deepest level; they think that applications of such discoveries, if any, matter less. Even if they had not developed the world’s first atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, and Enrico Fermi would still have been enshrined in the history of physics for discovering fundamental principles.

Information from multiple sources suggests to me that Salam did not do any bomb calculations himself. As a frontrunner in the world of physics, he was after bigger fish, not merely retracing the footsteps of his illustrious predecessors. And so he tasked his student, Riazuddin, with setting up a group of theoretical physicists. Although he lost power and influence in Pakistan after 1974, Salam continued to favor the bomb and to strongly push for its development. Those involved in bomb-design calculations were frequently invited to Trieste to use its ample library facilities. Earlier, Salam had advised the PAEC to purchase a plutonium reprocessing plant from France. That deal fell through after the Indian tests of 1974 and the growing suspicion that Pakistan would travel India’s route.

Riazuddin recalls that around December 1973 he had accompanied Salam and Munir Ahmad Khan to the Wah Explosive Factory and met its head, Lt. Gen. Qamar Ali Mirza. He saw TNT for the first time, and recognized from the Manhattan Project report that an explosive called Composition B was used. The Directorate of Technical Development group, created by Munir Ahmad Khan, and later headed by Riazuddin, carried out experimental work on the high explosives needed for triggering implosion, explosive lenses, fast detonators, as well as on the necessary neutronics and electronics.

Riazuddin was gentle and unassuming, the sort who couldn’t hurt a fly. So what made him go for designing nuclear weapons, each of which could easily snuff out a hundred thousand lives? Was he like Oppenheimer, who had felt uncomfortable after Hiroshima and subsequently refused to work on the bomb?

I do not think so. Apart from the Hilal-e-Imtiaz, Riazuddin accepted various government awards given to him by the government for his “services to the nation,” a euphemism for his bomb work. His unpublished notes, which I have seen, also do not reveal regret; in fact, these exhibit some measure of satisfaction over having done the job right. His mentor and ideal, Salam, was a very different personality. Unlike Riazuddin, he was articulate, assertive, and fully capable of defending his turf. Two very different people agreed that the bomb must be built. Why?

One can only guess at the motivations: it is generally true that scientists who participate in defense-related work achieve positions of much greater importance and wield much clout. (Certainly, Oppenheimer and Teller were the most sought after scientists in their days. Salam also admired Homi Jehangir Bhabha, a fine physicist and fierce nationalist who was the force behind India’s nuclear program.) In those days one could be an Ahmadi and a Pakistani nationalist, and Salam was both. He bought into the idea of rapidly modernizing the nation under Gen. Ayub Khan, becoming the government’s science adviser. 

Riazuddin was accused of being an Ahmadi. Why else was he so close to Salam?

It is interesting to compare the attitudes of Pakistan’s various bomb makers. Dr. A. Q. Khan and Dr. Samar Mubarakmand, Pakistan’s much celebrated scientists, frequently articulate in public their strong, visceral anti-Hindu feelings. This can perhaps be understood from the gut-wrenching partition of India, when Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims mass-slaughtered each other. On the other hand, Salam and Riazuddin never exhibited such hatreds—even though Jhang, Salam’s birthplace, and Ludhiana, Riazuddin and Fayyazuddin’s birthplace, had seen some of the worst atrocities. Was their attitude different from that of other nuclear scientists because of their exposure to the wider world of science?

Salam coauthored works with several scientists who were Hindu. While in Italy, one of his most productive scientific collaborations was with Jogesh C. Pati of the University of Maryland, resulting in the famous Pati-Salam Model for proton decay. When Salam received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979, India immediately conferred on him a national award. (I suspect few of Salam’s Indian colleagues knew of his nuclear past.) Pakistan’s then-president Gen. Zia-ul-Haq would grudgingly honor him a year later.

That Salam eventually distanced himself from Pakistan’s nuclear program is no mystery. He had no option. Parliament’s 1974 decision to declare Ahmadis heretics was a sharp turning point for him and his community. Every religious minority in Pakistan is hounded and harassed, but none is more relentlessly persecuted than the Ahmadis. In retrospect, they had erred fatally by raising the demand for Pakistan.

The older Salam was a different Salam. Although I had met him a few times beginning in 1971, it wasn’t until 1984 that we actually engaged. On the one hand, he had grown more attached to his faith, a fact that led to some tension in our conversations during my visits to Trieste; on the other, he became more inclined toward advocating world peace, disarmament, and turning “swords into ploughshares.” By the late 1980s, I think he would have preferred to forget his initial contributions to the bomb.

Riazuddin was not an Ahmadi, but was accused of being one—a well-tested and easy way for jealous detractors to defame and endanger a rival. Why else, they argued, was he so close to Salam? Riazuddin shrugged off the allegation. But his world, like Salam’s, had also opened wide through international travels. Riazuddin’s scientific collaborators were many—American, British, Italian, and Indian. This stands in sharp contrast with A. Q. Khan and Mubarakmand, neither of whom had Indian collaborators. Their work, although also essential for bomb making, was entirely concentrated on the engineering and managerial aspects.

Quiet Rebel

By nature a conformist rather than a dissident, Riazuddin was a religious man who said his prayers five times a day. His instincts were to agree and obey rather than argue. But he was also a technology enthusiast. His expectation, which seemed a tad unrealistic to me, was that the advanced technology demanded by the bomb would automatically usher in a new technological age for Pakistan and strongly boost local research and development. To his chagrin, nothing of the sort happened. Instead, even components that could be made locally were imported and reverse engineering was rewarded. Worse, undocumented financial transactions led to massive corruption within the nuclear establishment. His bomb-related budget in the 1970s had been just a few thousand dollars, of which he had to give complete accounts to the PAEC. But later, undocumented millions would be spent without a trace.

Clashes with the establishment became frequent after Riazuddin became director of the National Center for Physics at Quaid-e-Azam University. He sought to make the center a nucleus for Pakistani and international scientists. It would, he hoped, provide intellectual leadership, have an open atmosphere, and would be closely modeled along the lines of Salam’s center in Trieste. But, with real controls resting elsewhere, the center eventually became a mere appendage of the national-security establishment, staffed by retired colonels and brigadiers, and forced to bow to their pressures. Not unexpectedly, its role in nurturing physics has been minimal.

Crisis followed crisis. One of particular seriousness involved me as well. In 2006, for unclear reasons, Riazuddin’s bosses took fancy to a particular kind of machine known as a Van de Graaf accelerator or Pelletron. This 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. They decided to extract this sum from the Higher Education Commission, which was then flush. Upon reading in the newspapers that this albatross was purchased in the name of my department, I immediately protested with HEC’s top management, who defended the plan and told me that Riazuddin had signed off on the proposal. Horrified, I called Riazuddin. He admitted that he had succumbed to pressure “from above.”

But to his credit Riazuddin decided then to stand up and fight to prevent the import of a useless piece of costly junk. The peeved czars of the nuclear establishment brought in their troops—nearly 150 technical personnel from the PAEC, Kahuta Research Laboratory, and the National Engineering and Scientific Commission filled the auditorium of the physics department of Quaid-e-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. It stands at the center as a monument to shortsightedness and willful wastage, with no significant scientific output. A second one, installed at Government College, Lahore, saw a similar fate. Riazuddin paid the price for his dissidence: he lost his job.

A quintessential scientist who patiently worked on his calculations until almost the very end, Riazuddin published his last physics research paper in 2013—a remarkable feat for an 82-year-old. For one who had helped set Pakistan on its nuclear path, the farewell Riazuddin got from a bomb-loving nation was surprisingly low key. The country’s powerful nuclear and security establishment was clearly not willing to celebrate a man who had rebelled against it.

Pakistan Think Tank Article Selection Editor:Khaled Nizami

Note: This article was written in 2013 by Dr. Hoodbhoy is the Zohra and Z. Z. Ahmed distinguished professor of physics and mathematics at Forman Christian College University, Lahore. From Dec. 7, 2013, issue.

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