Interview Transcript

Transcript from an interview with Professor Walter Kohn, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 1998, at the 54th meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, 2004. Interviewer is freelance journalist Marika Griehsel.

Walter Kohn during the interview
Walter Kohn during the interview.

Professor Kohn, thank you for seeing us today, it’s very nice to meet you. You got the Prize in Chemistry 1998 and that took a few … that was quite a number of years after you did your remarkable discovery. How have you dealt with this prize, this award and how has it, how has it affected your life?

Walter Kohn: I’ll answer this in two parts. I mean one is simply how has receiving the Nobel Prize affected my life and the other one is, the second part is how has the fact that I’ve suddenly been transformed into a chemist affected my life and it’s, in both cases really very positive. Insofar as the first half of your question is concerned I think most of my colleagues who have received a Nobel Prize have probably had the similar experience. The fact that you receive the Nobel Prize suddenly means that broadly speaking people take you more seriously suddenly and that means that if one has some principles, some convictions and is not totally satisfied with the world as it is, one now has …

… here is the leading country in the world, but look at its health system …

Let me first say an opportunity, but really in certain sense a responsibility to do something with it. Not to let it be. I mean whether one’s concern is for example as an American I’m very concerned about the fact that here is the leading country in the world, but look at its health system. So health system is on the one hand in many areas the best in the world, on the other hand, if you look at the fraction of people, including millions of children who are getting very poor, sometimes no health care, it’s shocking. So as an example of something that I felt very upset about for many years.

Do you speak out about that?

Walter Kohn: Yes, you know, I speak out on it and, and the same about several other areas that concern me, so.

And during your speech in -98 you said that for example working for peace is something of importance.

Walter Kohn: Yes, and I continue to do this quite actively. I’ll just mention something very concrete, I’m a research Professor at the University of California, the Santa Barbara Campus, and the University of California is, has been managing the two, the two nuclear weapons laboratories in America, I think I’m correct in saying that every advance in the effectiveness of nuclear weapons – and one has to stop for a moment and ask oneself whether the word “advance” is the appropriate word – was done under the management of the University of California. It’s my University. It bothers me a lot and so the …

This management of the weapons laboratories by the University of California with some little glitches and some modifications is negotiated typically for a period of five years and then in the past has always been renewed. But it has to go through a renewal process. So the renewal process is just in progress now and I’ve spent a lot of time on this. I have spoken not only on my Campus but I’ve had a video made and the video has been used in Los Angeles at UCLA and so I had this what I call the opportunity and I personally felt the responsibility to speak up on this question.

And the other part is that you got it for chemistry, but you are not a chemist.

Walter Kohn: No I, yes that’s quite correct and well, that’s the situation, I’m actually very comfortable with it. Chemists do use my work extensively and they appreciate it and they are, because they appreciate it they are without exception very friendly towards me. They would be in a position extremely easily to embarrass me terribly, but no-one has ever tried that. I can tell you a slightly amusing story.

The day after I received the Prize of course it was quite a sensation in my little town in Santa Barbara, so I walked across the Campus and two students, two women students, are walking in the opposite direction, and they must have seen my picture somewhere, perhaps in the student newspaper, and so one of them turns around and comes back and says to me “Are you the guy who won the Nobel Prize?” and I said “Yes, I am” and so they both gave me a very friendly hug and then they kept going again, but then one came back again and said “Do you mind, we are just going to a chemistry exam, can we ask you a question?”

… at a certain theoretic level chemistry and physics are very close to each other …

So yes I was in a very tight spot! So I said “well try me” and I started praying very hard because I knew that the more elementary the questions would be the less likely that I could answer them! And so then this one young woman began to ask a question and then I recognised an interesting fact. You see my … the fact that I got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry reflects the fact that at a certain theoretic level chemistry and physics are very close to each other, but also at the lowest level they’re very close to each other and these girls didn’t really know the difference between physics and chemistry. So the question they had for me was in fact a physics question. So I gave them a brilliant answer! They were very impressed.

Is it that these areas that you getting the Prize in, so to speak, maybe they do overlap more and more in the modern scientific world?

Walter Kohn: Yes, I would say yes, but I would not go along with some kind of world picture that all sciences will become unified. I think different sciences, and of course each science evolves over time, but by and large they do have their own characteristics which differ, and I personally think that’s for the good because then science as a whole is enriched by this difference. Vive la difference!

If you advise students today at the Campus, or people who are … who would listen to this interview who want to go into scientific research, what would you give them, what kind of advice would you give them?

Walter Kohn: First of all I would like to get to know the person a little bit before I offer any advice, because promising young scientists are already rather exceptional people and they are all different from each other and …

Then a specific quality that you have to have, do you have to endure long nights of hard work and days?

Walter Kohn: Well, many yes, and some no. So I wanted to make a caveat before I say anything, because what I say is perhaps broadly sensible, but there will be some cases where it will be absolutely the wrong advice, and well let me think about this, I’d say perhaps two or three words of advice. Number one: Be prepared for some great excitement and great personal rewards but mostly disappointments, and you must last through disappointments and you have to be prepared for them. So that’s one piece of advice.

… I myself feel very much like a global citizen and it’s one of the best parts of my life …

Another piece that I would offer is, but again I would come back and say, I know people who would not say that, but in general I think scientists have a great opportunity to combine their intellectual or in some cases mechanical abilities on the one hand with playing a useful role in society, and whether it’s their town, or their country or whether it’s global, and of course scientists are a very global group and of course Nobel himself sort of highlights this globality of science, and I think I myself feel very much like a global citizen and it’s one of the best parts of my life. I mean I’m just coming from two hours conversations with students from all over, you know, the kind of students that come here literally all over the world and it’s very few things that are more richer, that richer experience.

Professor, you said you, you know, the scientists feel like a citizen of the world often and certainly one can describe you as a citizen of the world. You were born in Austria, but your childhood was made traumatic as you had to flee during the Nazi takeover of Austria. Could you tell us something about that?

Walter Kohn: I had traumatic experiences in my childhood. The traumatic experiences were related with the so-called Anschluss, the joining of Austria to Germany during the Hitler time in 1938. Before that, looking back at least, I feel I had a generally good childhood. So my problems were … many people of course suffered under the Hitler regime, my family and I suffered like all other people who were in the same situation because of our religion. We were Jewish. Now the … was that traumatic? Yes, it was terribly traumatic, I mean the entire family was totally uprooted, destabilised, maltreated, I was thrown out of my school in a day, as I remember, and so there were things of that sort. Now I want to say first of all that my parents did succeed to help both my sister and myself to emigrate, we both emigrated first to England, unfortunately they were unable to emigrate and they were eventually murdered.

I did not ever even think about returning, it was unbearable for me …

Both my sister and I had a wonderful experience in England, a family that we had not ever encountered personally had some business relationship with my father took us into their home and treated us as family members and were absolutely wonderful. My sister eventually returned to Vienna after she married an Austrian, another Austrian émigré. I did not ever even think about returning, it was unbearable for me, and after, so then I had bizarre experiences, in retrospect right I was threatened with extermination by the Austrians and Germans but on the other hand the English regarded me as a potential spy for the Germans, and in turn me and thousands of others who are close to years, and so I had bizarre experiences of this sort. Of course compared to the horror of people who had to stay behind I was in my personal body, so to speak, I was fortunate, the loss of my parents was of course disaster.

So after the years in England you went to Canada, you emigrated to Canada, or was sent to Canada. What happened there?

Walter Kohn: Well, in Canada I, together with I think approximately within five and ten thousand other people in similar situations, was put into an internment camp. You may wonder how did they happen to have this internment camp ready, well they had it ready because they arranged, the Canadians, with the British at the British request to build these internment camps in order to be prepared for the thousands of German prisoners of war they expected. Well the war didn’t go that way, in the initial period the British, the little British expeditionary force in France they were incredibly lucky to get away with their skin and they came back to Britain and I think a single prisoner came back with their skin, so there were these camps waiting and here were we, the suspected spy.

So, yes we were put in these camps and I want to say right away we were treated very humanely. It was sometimes difficult because there were a few real Nazis in there, a small minority, but they were very in the early phases of the war, the war was going splendidly for the Germans and so whenever there was a great victory on the East Coast, right, these people would have their celebrations, and of course the rest of us got very upset about this. So it was unpleasant, nothing really serious, nobody lost his life but few people lost a few teeth! Otherwise, there was a wonderful man there I encountered several times in my life these people that were there, this was a man by the name of Heckscher, a German art historian, and we encountered him as this dedicated person, very capable, very intelligent and he was going to establish a school in camp for young people like me. Himself was about 20 years older, in his late thirties, and he inspired respect by everybody including the officers who treated him pretty much as their equal. He was not Jewish but he had been … his family had been in the business of helping camp prisoner of war camp inmates for the second generation, his father had done this in the First World War and so he took over the family tradition. So he established a very good camp school.

There were some brilliant people in the camp and so I divided my time roughly half to studying and the other half we were given the opportunity, but not required, to do work of different kinds, so the work, I had two kinds that I liked best was making camouflage nets for the British Armed Forces, that’s very calming for the nerves, you stand there and you have sort of three movements that you learn in five minutes and then you repeat them tens of thousands of times and of course you no longer know you are doing this, and you can dream, whatever, talk to your neighbour. And the other activity in Canada, you will be surprised, was lumber work, cutting trees. So of course I mean from time to time we felt a little sorry for ourselves, I mean why are we in this camp and why can’t we go out and so on, but …

When did you set your heart on science then?

… a re-organised school which was exclusively for Jewish students and with Jewish teachers. Many of them did not survive …

Walter Kohn: Perhaps the most influential person was somebody I encountered after the Anschluss in Austria. I was expelled from my school, there was some temporary arrangements, complicated, I skipped them for a few months, the Anschluss was in March, next September some of us who had high grades in school were given the opportunity to enter into a newly organised, that’s not quite correct, but let me just say to enter into a re-organised school which was exclusively for Jewish students and with Jewish teachers. Many of them did not survive. The director was a physicist and so he directed the school and he taught physics. Then his Latin teacher was arrested and didn’t come back, and so the director who had taken Latin in school also taught Latin, and he didn’t know much Latin but he came into class with the books that were supposed to be read, some of the classic Latin poets, Ovid, Virgil, and a dictionary. So he taught us from the books and the dictionary …

Which way was he influencing you to become a physicist?

Walter Kohn: Well, he taught physics also. He influenced me both very much just admirable personality generally and inexplicably it was evident to me from the beginning that this man really knew science. Really understood science. Then about ten years later I found out that he had been an assistant of Einstein’s and he was an incredible man. I think without meeting him, and I had another very good teacher, a mathematician in the same school, without these two gentlemen I probably would not have become a scientist. My interests before that time, I was very enthusiastic about something but it wasn’t science, it was Latin.


Walter Kohn: Yeah.

Sir I would like to say thank you very much and good luck, thank you very much.

Walter Kohn: Thank you, thank you for the questioning.

Thank you.

Interview with Professor Walter Kohn by freelance journalist Marika Griehsel at the 54th meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, 2004.

Professor Kohn talks about being a non-chemist awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and how it has affected his life; how the sciences differ (8:29); gives some advice to young students (9:29); talks about traumatic experiences during his childhood (13:13); his years in Canada (17:43); and how he initially came into science (22:40).

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