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24 November 2015

Jacob Palis: "The spirit of Abdus Salam"

In a warm and emotional remembrance at the TWAS General Meeting, former Academy President Jacob Palis recalled the work that earned him the Abdus Salam Medal – and the friends he met along the way.

Vienna – It was with his usual grace and witty spirit that Brazilian mathematician and former TWAS President Jacob Palis took the stage to receive the prestigious Abdus Salam Medal.

In a room full of friends that he had made during more than a decade of leadership at TWAS, Palis recalled with affection his relationship with Salam, the Nobel laureate and founder of TWAS, and his decades-long advocacy for science in the developing world.

"Perhaps," he said, "this most special honour, the Abdus Salam Medal, was bestowed upon me in view of my great passion for TWAS, designed by its founder Abdus Salam to carry on the building up of science all over the world, with much focus on developing countries, to the benefit of their societies."

Palis was invited to give a public lecture as the winner of the prestigious Abdus Salam Medal, and he received that award during the opening ceremony of the TWAS 26th General Meeting. Indian chemist C.N.R. Rao, the TWAS Founding Fellow who preceded him as President, introduced Palis to the audience.

Palis, Rao recalled, has always been a vibrant presence in the life of the Academy. He served as the Secretary-General from 2001 to 2006, and then was elected president, a position he held from 2007 to 2012. He also has served as president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences since 2007.

Palis was born in Uberaba, in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, the son of a Lebanese father and a Syrian mother. He earned his master's degree in mathematics (1966) and PhD (1968) at the University of California at Berkeley (USA). In 1968 he returned to Brazil to begin his career as a researcher at the Instituto Nacional de Matemática Pura e Aplicada (IMPA). Later he would serve as director from 1993 to 2003.

The Abdus Salam Medal is among TWAS's most prestigious awards. It is named for the eminent Pakistani physicist who founded the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in 1964. Nearly two decades after the launch of ICTP, Salam convened some of the most eminent scientists of the developing world to found TWAS in 1983. Indeed, he was the driving force behind the establishment of an international scientific hub in Trieste, now known as the "City of Science".

The Abdus Salam Medal was instituted in 1995, a year before Salam's death. It was that relationship that Palis celebrated in the lecture he called "The Spirit of Abdus Salam" [Read Palis' speech in the file below].

"The title I chose for this lecture is indicative of my feelings with respect to Salam," said Palis at the beginning of his speech. Then, he shared with the audience his personal memories of a pivotal chapter of science history – written by Salam, by himself and other eminent scientists in Trieste, from the 1970s onward. His remembrance swept the elegant Festive Hall at the Austrian Academy of Sciences with a wave of emotions.

"For scientists from the developing world," Palis said, "coming to ICTP was an important step towards the realization of Salam’s dream applied to their own countries, as this confirmed their faith in their own talents and the importance of the work they were doing." Salam was certainly an iconic figure in science and ICTP was a revered place of learning. And TWAS continues to reflect his vision and energy.

At the very beginning of Rao’s TWAS presidency, for example, TWAS had created its PhD Fellowship Programme that now offers more than 460 positions for applicants of developing countries. They may study at some of the top institutes in the developing world, including those in Brazil, China, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico and Pakistan.

"We hope, not too far in the future, to achieve as much as 1,000 fellowships," said the Brazilian scientist. That brought a sustained ovation from the audience. His voice breaking with emotion, Palis then mentioned the students he has supervised. He paid a special tribute to friends and colleagues with whom he paved an important road for science in the South: Rao, longtime Executive Director Mohamed Hassan, current President Bai Chunli, Secretary-General Ajay Sood, the TWAS Council, and current Executive Director Romain Murenzi.

Then tears streamed from his eyes.

Cristina Serra

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