Physicist Fred Kavli, founder and chair of the Kavli Foundation, was a man whose lifelong love of science began when he was a boy. He was an innovative industrialist, a visionary, a philanthropic scientist, and a humanist. When he passed away, science lost a legendary giant, but he left behind a global legacy.
It was my honor, pleasure, and good fortune to get to know Fred over the last two decades, as a friend, mutual advisor, and a member of the Kavli Foundation’s Board of Directors. When I first met Fred 19 years ago at the home of Hugh and Susie Vos — both highly regarded at UC Santa Barbara and in the local community — our conversation ranged in topic from science to higher education to philanthropy. Behind his gentle sense of humor and soft-spoken demeanor, he had a sparkle in his eyes and a laser-beam focus.
He led a full, rewarding life that will forever have a lasting impact, yet he still left us much too soon. He died November 21, 2013, at his home in Santa Barbara of complications from surgery for a rare form of cancer. He was 86.
Born in Norway in 1927, he was still in high school when his vision to help society through science emerged. He went on to study physics at the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim and immigrated to the United States shortly after graduating in 1955.
Within a couple of years, he founded the Kavlico Corporation in Moorpark, which became one of the world’s largest suppliers of aeronautic, automotive, and industrial sensors, with accounts such as General Electric and Ford Motor Co. But as a philanthropist, he was always interested more in advancing science and cultivating scientists than in making money. After more than 40 years in business, he sold the company in 2000 — just before the tech bubble burst — for $345 million and established the Kavli Foundation with the goal of advancing science for the benefit of humanity.
When it came to philanthropy in advancing science, humanities, and education, Fred spent millions upon millions with the utmost generosity. But when it came to his own life, he often traveled on economy-class fares and bought suits from factory outlet stores.
The Kavli Foundation, based in Oxnard, has become one of the most impactful, effective, and prestigious institutions in the world to recognize and inspire scientists as well as to lead scientific research at the endless frontiers of science. Fred had the vision to establish the Kavli Prize to recognize and reward top scientists for their advances in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience. The $1 million prize has been awarded every two years since September 2008 at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway — Fred’s home country. The king of Norway personally hands out the honors.
Not long after the foundation’s start, Fred met with top scientists — including a Nobel Laureate, National Lab director, and foundation president — during a retreat at UC Santa Barbara’s University House. It was there that he cemented his innovative idea to establish Kavli Institutes around the world — to advance fundamental research in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience, and theoretical physics. There are now 17 Kavli Institutes at leading academic and research institutions worldwide, including the first established at UC Santa Barbara.
Because of Fred’s unique and special approach to supporting science, the Kavli name is honored by a broad range of other initiatives. These programs include, among others, the Kavli Royal Society International Centre in England, a retreat where scientists can meet to discuss and develop their work; the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards; and the Kavli Futures Symposia, a series of conferences that focus on the challenges and opportunities for future research.
Near and dear to my heart are Fred’s contributions at UC Santa Barbara, where he served as a foundation trustee and became an integral part of our university community. In addition to supporting our world-renowned Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, Fred personally endowed chairs in nanotechnology and in optoelectronics and sensors. He also endowed chairs at several other institutions.
What began in 1979 as the Institute for Theoretical Physics — initially funded by the National Science Foundation — was reborn in 2002 with Fred’s enthusiasm to see a premier center in Santa Barbara where theoretical physicists from around the world could come together for extended collaboration.
Today, the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara hosts about 50 distinguished visiting scientists in residence at any given time, which amounts to more than 1,000 annually, as well as five permanent members.
Fred’s bold vision will inspire generations of scientists to come, and history will prove him to be one of the most influential and renowned forces leading the advancement of science in the interest of humanity.
The global scientific community is fortunate to have such a legend as Fred Kavli in its ranks, and we in the Santa Barbara community are proud to have counted him among our residents.
Henry Yang is chancellor of UC Santa Barbara.