Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Walter Kohn: Nobel Laureate Lecture Series IV

On Thursday, June 23, at 2:00 p.m., at Inchon Memorial Hall, Walter Kohn will deliver the fourth lecture in Korea University's Nobel Laureate Lecture Series.

For those interested in finding out more about Professor Kohn, see the Nobel Prize site on the chemistry prize for 1998. As with previous speakers, we find there links to his Autobiography, his Nobel Lecture, an Interview with him, an image of his Nobel Diploma, a Prize Award Photo of him accepting the award, and Other Resources, namely, links to Walter Kohn’s page at the University of California, Santa Barbara and to an interview on Face2Face with Walter Kohn from The Vega Science Trust, by Tony Cheetham and John Perdew.

From Kohn's autobiographical remarks about his age in 1998, I calculate that he's now about 82 years old. The black-and-white photo at the Nobel Prize site, showing a Kohn of about 60, makes him look the very image of a conventional 1950s-era scientist: high forehead, thick-rimmed glasses, and square-jawed rectitude. That photo is taken from his UC Santa Barbara webpage, so I suppose that it has his blessing.

Hmmm . . . well . . . in its favor, there is a hint of Jack Benny about it.

But I much prefer Kohn's image on the Korea University poster that I saw hanging in the Gyo Yang Gwan Building -- until somebody else who also must have liked it a lot appropriated it! The photo there showed a much older, spryly humorous fellow in a beret, eyes twinkling with wit. He looked like an artist in that picture, and my first thought on seeing it was, "Oh, did KU invite a Literature Laureate, too?"

But no, he is -- despite his prize for chemistry -- a physicist. That will soon make three physicists in a row: Stephen Chu, Carl Wieman, and next Walter Kohn.

I'll have to look into his work on "density-functional theory" (whatever that is) and report back here.

Meanwhile, I can claim a sort of intellectual link. As a doctoral student at Harvard, Kohn was friends with Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science famous for his "paradigm theory" explanation for how scientific revolutions take place. Kuhn was the intellectual mentor to John Heilbron, a highly respected historian of science who worked for years at UC Berkeley, organizing and directing its Office for the History of Science and Technology, which was housed in Stephens Hall. I studied under John and still maintain contact with him.

Small world.


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