Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Walter Kohn and The Creation Of DFT

You all know that I try to highlight the lives and contribution of physicists that many in the general public are not aware of. This is another such example.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the article, since I haven't read any other biography on him, but this one describes the life of Walter Kohn, the person most responsible for the creation of Density Functional Theory (DFT), which has become a ubiquitous method in computing band structure and other properties of atoms, molecules, and solids.

Abstract: The theoretical solid-state physicist Walter Kohn was awarded one-half of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his mid-1960's 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 only the vastly more complicated many-electron wave function was needed for a complete description of such systems. Today, fifty 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.

The purpose of all my effort in pointing out the stories of these various physicists is not for us to worship and idolize these figures. I see people quoting many of these famous scientists as if they are word of god, and using those as if they are a sufficient counter argument. Far from it. I highlight them because we need to know that many of the things we accept and use and take for granted came from many of these nameless folks. It is trying to instill a sense of gratitude that the intelligence, creativity, and hard work of many of these people gave us the numerous convenience and advances that we enjoy today. You may not know before how much they had affected your lives, but you should now. You've gained another piece of knowledge/information that you didn't have before about someone who mattered.


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