Kohn, Walter, 1923-....

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1923-03-09

Biographical notes:

Biography

Walter Kohn is a Professor Emeritus of Physics at UCSB, with an emphasis in theoretical physics. On October 13, 1998 he was awarded half of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his development of the density-functional theory.

Kohn was born on March 9, 1923 to Jewish parents in Vienna, Austria. He lived for a year and a half under the Austrian Nazi regime until he fled as a refugee first to England in 1939 and later to Canada in 1940. Both of his parents, unable to leave Austria, became victims of the Holocaust. Throughout his life he has maintained a strong Jewish identity and he was instrumental in the establishment of the Judaic Studies program at UC San Diego. He also has been involved in social justice issues, including participating in the American Physical Society's Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists which petitions foreign governments and fellow scientists to end the persecution of scientists.

He attended University of Toronto from 1942 to 1945 where he received his undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics and his graduate degree in applied mathematics. During 1945-46, between his studies for the two degrees, he also completed a year of service in the Canadian Infantry, fighting in the last year of World War II. He then attended Harvard where he was awarded a PhD in physics in 1948. After graduation Kohn accepted his first position at Harvard as an instructor of physics.

In 1950 Kohn was offered a position at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) where he would work for the next ten years. While at Carnegie Mellon his research focused on Bloch electrons and semiconductor physics. Before starting, however, he was awarded a National Research Council fellowship and as a result postponed his appointment for two years to do research in Copenhagen. This would be the first of many temporary research positions he would hold abroad. He also later worked for months at a time in Tel Aviv, Israel; Les Houches, France; and Zurich, Switzerland; among other countries. During the last few weeks before beginning at Carnegie, Kohn was invited to work under the direction of Robert Oppenheimer at Princeton to finish his project begun in Copenhagen. During the summers of 1953 and 1954 Kohn also worked at Bell Labs doing research in solid state physics.

Kohn's career with the University of California began in 1960 when he left Carnegie to begin working at UC San Diego. It was while at UCSD that he began his work on density functional theory.

Kohn was invited in 1979 to come to UC Santa Barbara to assist in the establishment of the Institute of Theoretical Physics at UCSB, now known as the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics, and to work as its founding director. Here he would continue his work on density functional theory and other subjects. He held this position until 1984 when he became a full time professor in UCSB's Department of Physics. He has been a Professor Emeritus since 1991.

Also noteworthy is that throughout his life Kohn has been an outspoken advocate of peace and has opposed the use of nuclear weapons. Throughout the Cold War he worked towards US-Soviet nuclear disarmament. He was on the faculty advisory committee for the Global Peace and Security Program at UCSB and the affiliated Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. He actively advocated, although unsuccessfully, for the removal of the University of California as manager of Lawrence-Livermore National Laboratories. Kohn was also was a consultant for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, based out of Santa Barbara.

From the guide to the Walter Kohn Papers, ca. 1942-1998, 1960-1995, (University of California, Santa Barbara. Library. Dept. of Special Collections)

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Subjects:

  • Density functionals
  • Solid state physics

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