Monday, November 25, 2013

Fred Kavli: 1927-2013

On Thursday November 21nd, Fred Kavli (86†) died in Santa Barbara after a surgery of a rare cancer that sucks bile from the liver. He was a famous sponsor of science institutes and science jobs.

Kavli was born in a small Norwegian village in 1927. During the Nazi occupation of Norway, he was 14 and and together with his brother, he began to build his bifuel corporation (well, wood pellet fuel for cars). He found his father's 13 years in San Francisco inspiring, so he wanted to move to California.

With no sponsor, his visa application was rejected. He first moved to Montreal, Canada, when he was 28, and continued to the U.S. a year later. With an engineering degree from Norway, he was hired as an engineer in L.A. and grew to a chief engineer there (feedback flight controls).

He placed an ad in LA Times, "an engineer looking for bucks to build his own business", and it worked. Kavlico Corporation became the greatest supplier of sensors for aircraft and cars and beyond – beating Ford and GE in this small category. He sold the company for $345m in 2000 – now it has French owners – and he continued to get richer through real estate investments around L.A.

With the Kavli Foundation, he got even more honors than he would have gotten otherwise. He became a trustee of UCSB, among other things. Kavli institutes with this name appeared at (astrophysics) Stanford, Chicago, MIT, Cambridge UK, Peking; (nanoscience) Caltech, Cornell, Delft NL, Harvard; (neuroscience) Columbia, San Diego, Norway; (theoretical physics) Santa Barbara, China, Tokyo.

Of course, the KITP Santa Barbara led by David Gross is the most familiar one among them. Well, at least to me, I've been there about 6 times including one 6-month stay in 2001. Kavli has also founded some $1m science prizes in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience delivered in Oslo every year.

If you have more money than you "apparently" need, building your own science-oriented philanthropist project may be a good idea. Just for a few hundreds of millions, you may earn a TRF blog post, too. (This one is the fourth blog entry containing his full name.)

RIP Fred Kavli.


  1. I only knew about the KITP before reading this nice post ...

    Seems he has done and achieved many good and nice things.

  2. The obituary at the NYTimes is more interesting:

  3. Inspiring story!

  4. He recieved his training in physics:
    Siv.Ing. (master-equivalent 5-year degree) Teknisk Fysikk, Norges Tekniske Høyskole, 1955.

  5. The obituaries seem reluctant to mention that Kavli was also a major donor to the Republican party who sat on George W. Bush's panel of scientific advisers. In their small minds, they think they are not speaking ill of the dead instead of listing some his other proud contributions to society. :)

  6. Just before I got to the last paragraph I was thinking there's just no way I'd ever qualify for a TRF obit. You have to be dead first.

    Even if I got one... No thanks. I'll pass.

  7. I didn't know, or have forgotten! So much for Republicans' being anti-science, again.