UCSB Physics Professor, Nobel Laureate Dies


Gwendolyn Wu
Campus Beat Reporter

University of California, Santa Barbara physics professor and Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn passed away on Tuesday, April 19 at 93 years old.

Chancellor Henry Yang announced Kohn’s death in an email on Wednesday, April 20.

“Professor Kohn was a mentor and role model for colleagues and students alike,” Yang wrote. “Many have been inspired by his incredible life story and his work to promote tolerance and world peace.”

Kohn, who served as a professor emeritus and research professor in his field, was the founding director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics (now the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics). Kohn Hall, which houses KITP, is named in his honor.

In 1998, Kohn shared a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in the the development of the density-functional theory. The revolutionary theory, used primarily in physics, chemistry and materials sciences, analyzes the structural interactions of atoms, molecules and surfaces.

Outside of his own research, Kohn was well-known for his personal life story and foray into the intersection of religion and science. Kohn was rescued from Austria as part of the 1940 World War II Kindertransport, emigrating to Canada under dangerous conditions.

After receiving his Ph.D from Harvard University, Kohn worked at Carnegie Mellon University and UC San Diego, establishing a program for Judaic studies at the latter. In 2001, he spoke at the inaugural Templeton Research Lectures on Science, Religion, and the Human Experience at UCSB.

Kohn, however, was best known for his work in the sciences and is known for having once said, “Physics isn’t what I do; it is what I am.”

A public funeral service for Kohn will be held on Tuesday, April 26 at Congregation B’nai B’rith in Santa Barbara.

This article has been updated to reflect accurate information. 


Gwendolyn Wu is a third year double majoring in history and sociology, and is the 2016-2017 Executive Content Editor of The Bottom Line. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley and attended Cleveland High School, and is interested in pursuing journalism as a career. When not poring over history books, she's watching Cutthroat Kitchen and mentoring first year students.