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Chemistry Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn dies at age 93

Physicist shared 1998 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of density functional theory

by Celia Henry Arnaud
April 22, 2016

Credit: UC Santa Barbara
Chemistry Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn, who developed density functional theory, died April 19.
Credit: UC Santa Barbara
Chemistry Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn, who developed density functional theory, died April 19.

Chemistry Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn died April 19. He was 93. An emeritus professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he received the Nobel Prize in 1998 for his development of density functional theory.

Kohn’s work established the theoretical underpinnings of density functional theory, which is widely used for computational studies in chemistry, physics, and materials science. In 1964, working with Pierre Hohenberg, Kohn proved that the ground state electron density of a molecule exactly specifies that molecule’s total energy and all its ground state properties. The following year, working with Lu Sham, he developed a procedure for solving density functional theory equations.

“The work of Walter Kohn had a huge impact on the field of chemistry in at least two ways,” says Gregory A. Voth, a theoretical chemist at the University of Chicago. “First, electronic density functional theory has arguably become the most widely used electronic structure method in all areas of chemistry.” Second, Voth says, Kohn showed that for each molecular system a “true” electronic density functional must exist. In doing so, Voth says, Kohn set off a search that “has been the focus of countless theoretical chemists and is likely to continue be so for many years to come.”

Kohn was born to a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, in 1923. His parents died at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, but he and his sister managed to escape. He immigrated to England in 1939. From there, he was sent to a refugee camp in Canada in 1940. He received his bachelor’s degree in math and physics in 1945 and his master’s degree in applied mathematics in 1946, both from the University of Toronto. In 1948, he received his Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University. He became an American citizen in 1957.

Kohn was a physics professor at Carnegie Mellon University from 1950 to 1960. In 1960, he moved to the University of California, San Diego. In 1979, he moved to UC Santa Barbara to serve as the founding director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics, which is now the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. He had been an emeritus professor since 1991.

“Walter was an internationally regarded colleague, scholar, mentor, and role model, and, proudly, the first of six Nobel Laureates at UC Santa Barbara since 1998,” says Henry T. Yang, chancellor of UCSB. “His development of the density functional theory, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, revolutionized scientists’ approach to the electronic structure of atoms, molecules, and solid materials in physics, chemistry, and materials science.”



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kieron burke (April 22, 2016 5:31 PM)
Walter Kohn was also one of the preeminent theoretical
solid-state physicists of the 20th century. Density functional
theory was only one of many contributions bearing his name
which include Kohn anomalies and the Kohn mode. He was the deepest
thinker I have ever had the privilege to know, as he combined
extremely rigorous thinking with both physical intuition and
an eye for useful computational procedures. Beyond all this,
he was the model of a scientific citizen of the world.

Last year, at least 15,000 scientific papers using
density functional theory were published. The impact of his
work and his spirit will continue to grow for many years to come.
He will be sorely missed, and the world is a smaller place without him.
N.M. Ravindra (April 23, 2016 4:52 PM)
My prayers and thoughts are with Professor Kohn's Family. His contributions to Materials Science has deepened our understanding and appreciation of the world of materials.
Bob Freedman (April 23, 2016 5:40 PM)
I had the honor to know Walter Kohn as a graduate student in physics at UCSD in the late 1960s. This was the time he was working on the density functional theory (dft), He was a great role model as a scientist and person for everyone who knew him. He always seemed to say and do the right thing. He did not follow the fads in condensed matter physics. He was a deep original thinker who worked on fundamental problems. He influenced my career as a great role model eventhough I was not one of his graduate students. He will be missed and remembered by colleagues and friends all over the world.
Hugo N. Nazareno (April 25, 2016 8:16 PM)
I had the great honor of meeting late Professor Walter Kohn while I was visiting the Physics Departmenrt at UCSB.
It was a real pleasure to discuss with him technical matters, since after that one arrived at an enlarge vision and a better understanding of the processes under discussion. He was a real gentleman who had a vast cultural background. Our sincere condolence to his family en particular to Mrs Mara kohn
Charles F. Huber (April 27, 2016 1:48 PM)
I had the honor of providing library research assistance to Prof. Kohn on numerous occasions over the past quarter-century. I appreciated his graciousness and warmth as well as his towering intellect and contributions to science. He will be greatly missed.
Andre D Bandrauk (April 27, 2016 1:51 PM)
I met Walter many years ago at CECAM(Paris).When he found out I was from Sherbrooke (Que-Canada)he described to me the years he spent there interned in a war prisoner camp in the 1940,s with Max Perutz(Nobel Laureate for structure of hemoglobin). He invited me several times to visit him at UCSB as he was very much interested in our work on Attosecond Science.He was instrumental in convincing KITP-UCSB to invite me to coorganize the first North-American workshops on Attosecond 2006,2014 and KITP-Beijing in 2010.His keen interest in fostering new ideas in chemical and physical sciences left an indelible impression and gratitude on me,By the way we often conversed in French as he was perfectly bilingual.yes-Science has just lost a great man!
Helen Hansma (April 27, 2016 2:54 PM)
Walter was a great scientist and a wonderful person. I'm grateful to have known him. He gave me a wonderful gift, too, as we walked from the UCSB parking lot one day and I told him I was an 'armchair scientist' in my thoughts about the origins of life between mica sheets - "You're a theorist,' he told me. Remembering him warms my heart.
Zafra Lerman (April 27, 2016 11:36 PM)
Walter was not only a great scientists but he was a great humanitarian.He was involved in using his science as a bridge to peace in the middle east.He participated in several Malta conferences which bring together scientists from 15 middle east countries to develop collaborations and friendships.Walter was very active in this conferences and a big believer that they can contribute to peace. He wrote to all of us in the Malta family the following "We are all united by our love of science and commitment to its use for the benefit of mankind."We will miss him very much and he will always be in our hearts.
Jean-Francois Lapointe (May 1, 2016 9:12 AM)
I'm happy that science can be proud of people like him when they pioneered foremost theories for a huge community of researchers including myself..
Carlo U. Segre (May 4, 2016 3:13 PM)
I was fortunate enough to have had Walter Kohn as a professor when I was a graduate student at UCSD in the mid 1970's. He was a no-nonsense teacher and very demanding but I learned much from him that I have carried throughout my career. Many years later I ran into him at a conference in Washington D.C. and he was gracious enough to remember me or perhaps just too nice to say otherwise. He will be missed.
Sameen Ahmed Khan (May 7, 2016 5:24 AM)
Saddened to learn about the death of Walter Kohn.

I had the privilege to meet Walter Kohn, during the Conference, "Novel Physics in Low-Dimensional Electron Systems",
held at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (MATSCIENCE/IMSc), Madras, India, during 9-14 January 1995,
organized by Prof. Tapash Chakraborty. Kohn had given a very illuminating talk: 45 Years of Condensed Matter Physics.

With warm regards + best wishes

Sameen Ahmed KHAN
Assistant Professor
Department of Mathematics and Sciences
College of Arts and Applied Sciences (CAAS)
Dhofar University
Sultanate of OMAN

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