From Exile to Excellence
Nobel prize laureate Walter Kohn shares his thoughts about his identity as a former Austrian and about his career in a candid interview with Austria Kultur. When he refers to physics as an edifice of incredible beauty, it seems natural that he made it his life’s work.
By Karin Hanta
On October 13, 1998 Dr. Walter Kohn, professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara, received the Nobel prize for Chemistry. Though Dr. Kohn is a theoretical physicist, his density-functional theory has also been extensively applied in the field of chemistry, enabling scientists to predict how atoms will bond in a molecule. Dr. Kohn shared the award with John Pople of North-western University, who developed computer programs to predict chemical reactions. These programs are now a common tool for many chemical applications, for example to develop new pharmaceuticals and analyze unusual compounds from outer space.
Austria Kultur: Did you take offense to the fact that the Austrian media claimed you as an Austrian?
Walter Kohn: Yes, I did. In terms of my identity, I see myself as an American, a world citizen, a Jew, and a former Austrian. Obviously, any characterization that is limited to describing me as an Austrian, is totally at variance with my own sense of self.
I lived in Austria until the age of sixteen and I have some wonderful memories and many things that I am grateful for. For example, I feel that I got an excellent education at the Akademisches Gymnasium in Vienna. The fact of the matter is, however, that the Austrian authorities expelled me from that school in a devastating way. I then had an opportunity to continue in a Jewish school. We just commemorated Kristallnacht. In the original Kristallnacht, a friend and I just stepped out of this Jewish school and this was reason enough for us to be taken by a seemingly very friendly Austrian policeman to a police station and to be held there for many hours, terrified. I came home and found our apartment absolutely vandalized by a group of hooligans, including the person who had taken over my father’s business. I managed to get out of Austria on a Kindertransport to England three weeks before the war broke out. I left without my parents, who I know went via Theresienstadt to their death in Auschwitz. There were people in England, in Canada, in the U.S. who instead of trying to eliminate me, really supported me. With all that in my mind, when people say “Hooray for an Austrian Nobel Laureate,” I have problems.
AK: In the sixty years since Kristallnacht, do you think that Austria has been able to come to terms with its past?
WK: That is a very big question. I have returned to Austria fairly regularly because of my sister, who also emigrated to England but returned after marrying a non-Jewish Austrian. Well, progress in dealing with the past was made only very slowly if one compares Austria to Germany. In my opinion, Waldheim was a terrible throwback for Austria, a real tragedy. It somehow showed to me the continuing blindness of the Austrians. I have the feeling that in the last few years there has been progress, however. Vienna’s Technical University gave me an honorary doctorate about three years ago. Well, the Technical University had a certain reputation during the Nazi regime. It was one of the cradles of the Nazi intellectuals. This time, the student body president met me at his own request and absolutely wanted to show me a tablet that had been mounted onto the wall of the University’s courtyard. It was a memorial to the Jewish professors who were expelled by the Technical University and most of whom did not survive. The tablet assumed responsibility. The students told me that it took them three years to get it accepted by the faculty.
AK: Do you have a sense that the younger generation is coming to terms with the past better than the older generation?
WK: Certainly some of them. On that occasion I also met an architecture student at the Technical University, Bernhard Schneider. He acquainted me with the Austrian Gedenkdienst, an alternative to military service. It basically involves intern service at Holocaust-related institutions. Again, this service was established because young people put pressure on the political system.
AK: Were there schools in Great Britain where you could continue your education?
WK: I attended a county school in Sussex for a short time. After that, I was interned because I was in an age group where the authorities suspected me of espionage. My school was kind enough to send me my books to the internment camp though they probably broke the law. They assumed that a mistake had been made and I would be back any day. It did not happen. I was subsequently transferred to a camp in Canada for almost two years. There, an outstanding art historian by the name of Heckscher, a non-Jew, organized an excellent camp school, which prepared us for the regular matriculation examination at McGill University.
AK: Was there someone who nurtured your love for science in your childhood?
WK: At the Akademische Gymnasium there was a strong emphasis on classical languages. I developed a great love for Latin. After I was expelled, I had two wonderful teachers at the Jewish school, Nohel and Sabbath, who got me all excited about physics and mathematics.
AK: Was your goal always to attend university?
WK: No. When I was in England I wanted to become a farmer. During my childhood in Vienna I had experienced the depression. I met many young intellectuals without work or hope. I became very ill in England, however, with meningitis. My hosts therefore urged me to attend the county school.
WK: My father was a businessman. At the turn of the century, he established a publishing house, Brüder Kohn, Wien I, with his two brothers. They published a new genre, the art postcard. The pictures were top-of-the-line reproductions of works of art. Until the depression, this was a very successful venture. AK: When did you decide to study physics?
WK: I guess in England, when I was sixteen, seventeen. This interest was really awakened by the high school teacher whom I had at the Jewish school in Vienna.
AK: What is it about physics that attracted you so much?
WK: Well, again I have to come back to my teacher. He conveyed physics as an absolute. It was an edifice of incredible beauty. It was something untouchable by these barbarians who had such enormous power. The splendor of the laws of nature remained untouched.
AK: What does it take to get a Nobel prize?
WK: Luck. (laughs)
AK: Is that all?
WK: No, of course, that alone does not do it. So many things have to work out, but without luck, they do not happen. One also needs to have a certain level of intelligence, open-mindedness, and curiosity, as well as patience and commitment.
AK: Why did you, as a theoretical physicist, receive the prize for chemistry?
WK: That is a little curious. I was the principal author of the density-functional theory. From the beginning, it was clear that it had a potential for a number of problems. Physicists used it right away and it became a rather standard method for theoretically investigating solid materials. Chemists, for complicated reasons of history and sociology, decided that it was not right for them. Then, twenty, thirty years later, they changed their minds and found out that it was especially useful for chemistry.
AK: Did you suspect it would be valuable for chemistry?
WK: Yes, I did.
AK: But you did not push it?
WK: I am an abstract theorist and, with my collaborators, I work out simple applications. We made some approximations, but were only moderately successful in chemistry. It was other people who in the last ten to fifteen years refined these approximations so that the calculations became much more accurate than they were. And then the theory became of great interest for the field of chemistry. I am very much indebted to my younger friends who have improved the method through insightful and imaginative thinking. The density-functional theory is now of a precision that has made it very valuable.
AK: Over the years, you didn’t collaborate with John Pople. But did you inform him about your findings?
WK: He was informed through the literature. About a decade ago, I gave a lecture at a meeting of an international academy at which John Pople was present. He had not yet taken to the theory and criticized it vigorously. Then he became a staunch supporter.
AK: Are you developing your theories further?
WK: I have been retired for about ten years, but I work full time in research at Santa Barbara.
AK: Did you get an insight into the Austrian university system? Do you find it easier to do research here?
WK: It is my impression that a young faculty member at an American university can work independently from the very beginning. In very many cases, you get a chance to develop your own ideas. In contrast, a department chair in other countries, not only Austria, often controls everything in his sphere of influence.
AK: Thank you for the interview.