Walter Kohn: 1923-2016In Memoriam | Thu May 19, 2016 | 12:00am
Life offers many opportunities, but rarely in one’s lifetime does it offer the privilege of knowing a man like Walter Kohn. A Nobel Laureate and UC Santa Barbara professor of physics, Walter was a senior statesman, scientist, and scholar who left behind rich consequences for our world. He passed away just before midnight on April 19, 2016, with his wife, Mara Schiff Kohn, and other loved ones at his side. He was 93.
Born in Vienna in 1923, Walter was a teenager when World War II began. He and his sister, Minna, were rescued from the Nazi regime in one of the Kindertransport missions that brought some 10,000 children out of Nazi Germany, Austria, and other German-occupied territories, and placed them with surrogate families in England. His parents, Gittel and Salomon Kohn, were killed at Auschwitz in 1944.
Before leaving Austria, Walter was a student first at the Akademisches Gymnasium, the oldest secondary school in Vienna, and then at the Chajes Gymnasium, the Jewish high school. At the Akademisches, Walter followed a course of study in Latin and Greek under the guidance of his mother. That changed, however, when Walter attended the Chajes, whose principal, Emil Nohel, was a well-known physicist and a former teaching assistant of Albert Einstein. It was Dr. Nohel who first sparked Walter’s interest in physics — an interest that would last a lifetime.
When the time came for Walter to leave England, he was welcomed into the home of physician Bruno Mendel and his wife, Hertha Mendel, in Toronto, Canada. Bruno and Hertha became surrogate parents, encouraging and supporting Walter’s studies in physics at the University of Toronto.
As Walter described it, “Physics isn’t what I do; it is what I am.” Beyond physics, he was a humanist, an artist, and a philosopher who shared time with such revered figures as the Pope and the Dalai Lama.
In all, his career spanned nearly 70 years. Walter, who became a U.S. citizen in 1957, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Toronto, and his PhD in physics from Harvard. He worked at Bell Laboratories in the early 1950s as an assistant to the group that developed the transistor. From 1950-1960, he taught at Carnegie Mellon University, after working at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen as a National Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellow. He then served for nearly two decades as a faculty member in UC San Diego’s Department of Physics, before leaving to spend the next 37 years at UC Santa Barbara.
Professor Kohn joined our faculty in 1979 as the founding director of our Institute for Theoretical Physics, now the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. The Institute brings together leading scientists from throughout the world to work on major problems in theoretical physics and related fields. Under his leadership, it quickly developed into one of the leading research centers in physics and has since been widely emulated internationally. In 1993, the building that houses the institute was named Kohn Hall in honor of his founding contributions.
The highlight of Dr. Kohn’s career came on October 13, 1998, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of the density functional theory. Proudly, this made him the first of six Nobel Laureates at UC Santa Barbara since 1998. I still remember the headline of our campus newspaper: “Walter Kohn: A Nobelist with Heart.”
A condensed matter theorist who made seminal contributions to the understanding of the electronic structure of materials, he revolutionized scientists’ approach to the electronic structure of atoms, molecules, and solid materials in physics, chemistry, and materials science. With the advent of supercomputers, density functional theory has become an essential tool for electronic materials science. About half of the world’s publications in quantum chemistry make reference to his theory. Professor Kohn also made major contributions to the physics of semiconductors, superconductivity, surface physics, and catalysis.
More recently, he had been working on macular degeneration, global warming, and renewable energies, such as solar energy.
In 2005, he and fellow Nobel Laureate and UC Santa Barbara Professor of Physics and of Materials Alan Heeger produced a documentary on solar power titled The Power of the Sun, narrated by actor and comedian John Cleese. It was distributed in several languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, several European languages, and Tagalog in the Philippines, with screenings worldwide.
My wife, Dilling Yang, and I had the honor and pleasure of working with Professor Kohn on this project. During this whole process, meeting regularly with Walter over afternoon tea, not only did I learn a great deal from him, but I also had a chance to observe his creative mind, experience his persistent spirit, and witness his legacy to humankind.
This film inspired us with the dream of empowering even the most isolated people of the developing world with electricity. When Walter first showed me the image of a camel carrying a solar cell to power the refrigeration of vaccines for delivery to remote areas, such as East Africa, I was deeply moved — not just by the power of the sun, but also by the power of science combined with human compassion.
Professor Kohn had many other milestone moments in his illustrious career, including being awarded the National Medal of Science; the Oliver Buckley Prize in Solid State Physics; the Davisson-Germer Prize in Surface Physics; the Feenberg Medal in Many-Body Physics; the Niels Bohr/UNESCO Gold Medal; and the Richard E. Prange Prize. He was also a recipient of the UC Santa Barbara Medal, our campus’s highest honor. He served as a member of the Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Science Advisory Committee and as a consultant with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Beyond his research, Walter was deeply engaged in matters spiritual and societal. In 2001, he was the inaugural speaker for the Templeton Research Lectures on Science, Religion, and the Human Experience, sponsored by the Templeton Foundation and hosted by UC Santa Barbara. He spoke about the interaction between science and religion, and about how science and technology pose both great promise and great threat to mankind in this global age.
I was particularly struck by his statement that “science by itself is not an adequate basis for conducting one’s life.” This was certainly a guiding principle in his own life. Throughout his career, Professor Kohn was a wise mentor and role model for colleagues and students alike. Many have been inspired by his incredible life story and his work to promote tolerance and world peace.
Walter’s inspiration and impact are beyond anything I can adequately describe. Through the fullness of his life and the genius of his work, he has left a living and lasting legacy on our proud UC Santa Barbara campus, in our community, and around the world. He will be deeply missed but never forgotten.
Henry T. Yang is chancellor of University of California, Santa Barbara. A portion of his remembrance first appeared in Walter Kohn: Personal Stories and Anecdotes Told by Friends and Collaborators (Springer Science+Business Media, 2003).