Archive for History of Exact Sciences

, Volume 68, Issue 6, pp 775–848 | Cite as

The education of Walter Kohn and the creation of density functional theory

  • Andrew ZangwillEmail author


The theoretical solid-state physicist Walter Kohn was awarded one-half of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his mid-1960s creation of an approach to the many-particle problem in quantum mechanics called density functional theory (DFT). In its exact form, DFT establishes that the total charge density of any system of electrons and nuclei provides all the information needed for a complete description of that system. This was a breakthrough for the study of atoms, molecules, gases, liquids, and solids. Before DFT, it was thought that knowledge of the vastly more complicated many-electron wave function was essential for a complete description of such systems. Today, 50 years after its introduction, DFT (in one of its approximate forms) is the method of choice used by most scientists to calculate the physical properties of materials of all kinds. In this paper, I present a biographical essay of Kohn’s educational experiences and professional career up to and including the creation of DFT. My account begins with Kohn’s student years in Austria, England, and Canada during World War II and continues with his graduate and postgraduate training at Harvard University and Niels Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen. I then study the research choices he made during the first 10 years of his career (when he was a faculty member at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and a frequent visitor to the Bell Telephone Laboratories) in the context of the theoretical solid-state physics agenda of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Subsequent sections discuss his move to the University of California, San Diego, identify the research issue which led directly to DFT, and analyze the two foundational papers of the theory. The paper concludes with an explanation of how the chemists came to award “their” Nobel Prize to the physicist Kohn and a discussion of why he was unusually well suited to create the theory in the first place.


Variational Principle Local Density Approximation American Physical Society Hartree Equation Bell Telephone Laboratory 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



First and foremost, I thank Walter Kohn, who graciously granted me two interviews, answered my follow-up questions by email, and gave me access to several private documents and photographs. Prof. Kohn’s administrative assistant, Ms. Chris Seaton, deserves special mention for her unfailing help. I am also grateful to Pierre Hohenberg and Lu Jeu Sham, who shared with me both their memories and their personal photographs. Dozens of people communicated with me about their experiences with Kohn and his work and I collectively thank all of them here. Ms. Pia Otte provided excellent translations from German into English and I acknowledge Andre Bernard (John Simon Guggenheim Foundation), Carlo Siochi (University of Toronto), Gregory Giannakis (McGill University), and Felicity Pors (Niels Bohr Archive) for sending me copies of original documents. The staffs of the Department of Special Collections of the Library of the University of California at Santa Barbara and of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre provided essential help. Special thanks go to my Georgia Tech colleague, Glenn Smith, who read every word and offered many helpful suggestions.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of PhysicsGeorgia Institute of TechnologyAtlantaUSA

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