Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn Dies at Age 93

UCSB Professor Pursued Physics and World Peace

Walter Kohn
Paul Wellman (file)

The flags at UCSB stand at half-mast today out of respect for Walter Kohn, a physicist whose career spanned the technological revolution and who died Tuesday night, Chancellor Henry Yang announced on Wednesday. A faculty member since 1979, Kohn founded the school’s Institute for Theoretical Physics that year. In 1998, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of the density functional theory. His theory is cited in nearly half the publications on quantum chemistry and his work has been an essential tool in the development of supercomputers.

Kohn, who was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1923, was among the children rescued by a kindertransport out of Nazi Germany to England. He travelled to Canada in 1940, where he attended the University of Toronto. The at-times gently humorous biography he wrote for the Nobel committee touches on the murders of his parents during the Holocaust, his service in the Canadian infantry during WWII, and his subsequent work to end the nuclear arms race and to have scientists play a role in global issues. Kohn was among the group at Bell Labs in the early 1950s that developed the transistor, and he held posts at Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, Carnegie Mellon, and UC San Diego before settling in at UCSB. His career was decorated with prestigious awards in addition to the Nobel, including the National Medal of Science and the Oliver Buckley Prize in Solid State Physics. His more recent research had turned to renewable energy, macular degeneration, solar power, and global warming.

“Professor Kohn was a mentor and role model for colleagues and students alike,” wrote the chancellor. “Many have been inspired by his incredible life story and his work to promote tolerance and world peace. The tremendous impact of his life and work are beyond anything I can describe.” In addition to his science research, Kohn was “deeply engaged in matters spiritual and societal,” Yang said.

Walter Kohn is survived by his wife, Mara, and many family members. A public funeral service will be held Tuesday, April 26, at 2 Congregation B’nai B’rith. Carpooling is encouraged as parking is limited. Yang stated a campus memorial is also being planned.

Editor’s Note: The day of Dr. Kohn’s death has been corrected in this story.


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