Walter Kohn

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Walter Kohn
Walter Kohn.jpg
Kohn in 2012
Born March 9, 1923
Vienna, Austria
Died 19 April 2016(2016-04-19) (aged 93)
Santa Barbara, California, U.S.
Nationality United States
Fields Physics, Chemistry
Institutions UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego
Alma mater University of Toronto, Harvard
Doctoral advisor Julian Schwinger
Known for Density functional theory
Notable awards Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Prize (1961)
National Medal of Science (1988)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1998)
Spouse Lois (Adams)[1]
Mara (Vishniac) Schiff[2]
A banner on a lightpole at the University of California, Santa Barbara, commemorating Walter Kohn being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1998.

Walter Kohn (March 9, 1923 – April 19, 2016)[4] was an Austrian-born American theoretical physicist and theoretical chemist. He was awarded, with John Pople, the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1998.[5] The award recognized their contributions to the understandings of the electronic properties of materials. In particular, Kohn played the leading role in the development of density functional theory, which made it possible to calculate quantum mechanical electronic structure by equations involving the electronic density (rather than the many-body wavefunction). This computational simplification led to more accurate calculations on complex systems as well as many new insights, and it has become an essential tool for materials science, condensed-phase physics, and the chemical physics of atoms and molecules.[6]

Early years in Canada[edit]

Kohn arrived in England as part of the Kindertransport rescue operation immediately after the annexation of Austria by Hitler.[7] He was from a Jewish family, and has written, "My feelings towards Austria, my native land, are – and will remain – very painful. They are dominated by my vivid recollections of 1 1/2 years as a Jewish boy under the Nazi regime, and by the subsequent murder of my parents, Salomon and Gittel Kohn, of other relatives and several teachers, during the Holocaust. ... I want to mention that I have a strong Jewish identity and – over the years – have been involved in several Jewish projects, such as the establishment of a strong program of Judaic Studies at the University of California in San Diego."[8][6]

Because he was a German national, he was transferred to Canada in July 1940 after the outbreak of World War II. As a 17-year-old, Kohn travelled as part of a British convoy moving through U-boat-infested waters to Quebec City in Canada; and from there, by train, to a camp in Trois-Rivières. He was at first held in detention in a camp near Sherbrooke, Quebec. This camp, as well as others, provided a small number of educational facilities that Kohn used to the fullest, and he finally succeeded in entering the University of Toronto. As a German national, the future Nobel Laureate in Chemistry was not allowed to enter the chemistry building, and so he opted for physics and mathematics.[8]

Scientific career[edit]

Kohn received a war-time bachelor's degree in applied mathematics at the end of his one-year army service, having completed only 2½ out of the 4-year undergraduate program, from the University of Toronto in 1945; he was awarded an M.A. degree in applied mathematics by Toronto in 1946. Kohn was awarded a Ph.D. degree in physics by Harvard University in 1948, where he worked under Julian Schwinger on the three-body scattering problem. At Harvard he also fell under the influence of Van Vleck and solid state physics.

He moved from Harvard to Carnegie Mellon University from 1950 to 1960, after a short stint in Copenhagen as a National Research Council of Canada post-doctoral fellow. At Carnegie Mellon he did much of his seminal work on multiple-scattering band-structure work, now known as the KKR method. His association with Bell Labs got him involved with semiconductor physics, and produced a long and fruitful collaboration with Luttinger (including, for example, development of the Luttinger-Kohn model of semiconductor band structure). In 1960 he moved to the newly founded University of California, San Diego, held a term as the physics department chair,[9] and remained until 1979. It was during this period, he, along with his student Chanchal Kumar Majumdar developed the Kohn–Majumdar theorem related to Fermi gas and its bound and unbound states.[10][11] He then accepted the Founding Director's position at the new Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara. He took his position as a professor in the Physics Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1984; where he worked until the end of his life.

Kohn made significant contributions to semiconductor physics, which led to his award of the Oliver E. Buckley Prize by the American Physical Society. He was also awarded the Feenburg medal for his contributions to the many-body problem. His work on density functional theory was initiated during a visit to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, with Pierre Hohenberg, and was prompted by a consideration of alloy theory. The Hohenberg–Kohn theorem was further developed, in collaboration with Lu Jeu Sham, to produce the Kohn-Sham equations. The latter is the standard work horse of modern materials science,[12] and even used in quantum theories of plasmas.[12] In 2004, a study of all citations to the Physical Review  journals from 1893 until 2003, found Kohn to be an author of five of the 100 papers with the "highest citation impact", including the first two.[13]

Walter Kohn receiving an honorary doctorate at The University of Oxford

In 1957, he relinquished his Canadian citizenship and became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

In 1963 Kohn became a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 1969, a Member of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2011, he became an honorary member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW). He was also a Member of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science.


Kohn died on April 19, 2016 at his home in Santa Barbara, California from jaw cancer, at the age of 93.[14][15][6]

Honors and awards[edit]

Selected publications[edit]

  • W. Kohn, An essay on condensed matter physics in the twentieth century, Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 71, No. 2, pp. S59-S77, Centenary 1999. APS
  • W. Kohn, Nobel Lecture: Electronic structure of matter — wave functions and density functionals, Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 71, No. 5, pp. 1253–1266 (1999). APS
  • D. Jérome, T.M. Rice, and W. Kohn, Excitonic Insulator, Physical Review, Vol. 158, No. 2, pp. 462–475 (1967). APS
  • P. Hohenberg, and W. Kohn, Inhomogeneous Electron Gas, Physical Review, Vol. 136, No. 3B, pp. B864-B871 (1964). APS
  • W. Kohn, and L. J. Sham, Self-Consistent Equations Including Exchange and Correlation Effects, Physical Review, Vol. 140, No. 4A, pp. A1133-A1138 (1965). APS
  • W. Kohn, and J. M. Luttinger, New Mechanism for Superconductivity, Physical Review Letters, Vol. 15, No. 12, pp. 524–526 (1965). APS
  • W. Kohn, Theory of the Insulating State, Physical review, Vol. 133, No. 1A, pp. A171-A181 (1964). APS
  • W. Kohn, Cyclotron Resonance and de Haas-van Alphen Oscillations of an Interacting Electron Gas, Physical Review, Vol. 123, pp. 1242–1244 (1961). APS

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Emma Stoye (22 April 2016). "Chemistry Nobel laureate Walter Kohn dies aged 93 | Chemistry World". 
  2. ^ Newhouse, Alana (1 April 2010). "A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ Tegmark, Max (19 February 2013). "Top Scientists On God: Who Believes, Who Doesn't". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 13 May 2013. I am very much a scientist, and so I naturally have thought about religion also through the eyes of a scientist. When I do that, I see religion not denominationally, but in a more, let us say, deistic sense. I have been influenced in my thinking by the writing of Einstein who has made remarks to the effect that when he contemplated the world he sensed an underlying Force much greater than any human force. I feel very much the same. There is a sense of awe, a sense of reverence, and a sense of great mystery. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ From Exile to Excellence Archived May 31, 2011, at the Wayback Machine., by Karin Hanta (Austria Culture Vol. 9 No. 1 January/February 1999)
  6. ^ a b c Sham, Lu J. (2016). "Walter Kohn (1923–2016) Condensed-matter physicist who revolutionized quantum chemistry". Nature. 534 (7605): 38–38. PMID 27251269. doi:10.1038/534038a. 
  7. ^ "Walter Kohn, onetime refugee who became Nobel laureate in chemistry, dies at 93". Washington Post. Retrieved 2016-04-25. 
  8. ^ a b "Walter Kohn – Biographical". Nobel Prize Organization. 
  9. ^ UCSB Physics Department Website 'W. Kohn, BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS'
  10. ^ "Chanchal Kumar Majumdar (1938–2000) – An obituary" (PDF). Current Science. July 2000. 
  11. ^ Matthias Scheffler; Peter Weinberger (28 June 2011). Walter Kohn: Personal Stories and Anecdotes Told by Friends and Collaborators. Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 264–. ISBN 978-3-642-55609-8. 
  12. ^ a b E. K. U. Gross and R. M. Dreizler, Density Functional Theory, Plenum 1993
  13. ^ Redner, S. Citation Statistics From More Than a Century of Physical Review  2004 [1]
  14. ^ Pernett, Stephanie (April 22, 2016). "UCSB Professor and Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn Passes Away at 93". Daily Nexus. Santa Barbara, California. Retrieved April 22, 2016. 
  15. ^ "Walter Kohn, Nobel-Winning Scientist, Dies at 93". The New York April 25, 2016. Retrieved April 25, 2016. 
  16. ^ "Fellows of the Royal Society". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2015-03-16. 
  17. ^ "Fellowship of the Royal Society 1660–2015". Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2015-07-15. 
  18. ^ "Reply to a parliamentary question" (PDF) (in German). p. 1305. Retrieved 19 November 2012. 
  19. ^ "Reply to a parliamentary question" (PDF) (in German). p. 1874. Retrieved 19 November 2012. 
  20. ^ "Eight receive honorary degrees". Retrieved 6 July 2012. 

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