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Mayer Hall Recognized for Historical Contributions to Physics

American Physical Society cites the groundbreaking work of UC San Diego physicists Walter Kohn and Lu Sham


  • Mario Aguilera

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  • Mario Aguilera

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Mayer Hall on the UC San Diego campus (2018). Credit: Michelle Fredricks, Division of Physical Sciences, UC San Diego.

The American Physical Society has designated UC San Diego’s Mayer Hall as a historic site in recognition of research conducted by physicists Walter Kohn and Lu Jeu Sham on density functional theory.

Their development of the “Kohn-Sham equation” inside Mayer Hall became the foundation for the computation of the material properties of electrons and nuclei.

“I recall the happy times in Mayer Hall working with Walter Kohn developing the ‘Kohn-Sham equation’ and with Philip B. Y. Tong doing the first computation. It is amazing that so many scientists and engineers build on the method to develop a quantitative understanding of all kinds of materials hence,” said Sham, a UC San Diego distinguished professor emeritus of physics.

Understanding the electronic properties of complex systems is essential to the design and engineering of new materials and drugs. Kohn and Pierre Hohenberg on sabbatical in Paris developed a theorem for the electron ground state energy to depend on the electron density distribution instead of the usual potential energy due to the nuclei.


Mayer Hall, shown with the iconic breezeway to Bonner Hall, has been designated a historic site due to the groundbreaking accomplishments of UC San Diego physicists. Credit: Michelle Fredricks, Division of Physical Sciences, UC San Diego.

In Building C (later named Mayer Hall), from 1964-66, Kohn and Sham laid the foundation of a computation method, based on a single-particle equation composed of its quantum kinetic energy and the potential energy including the interaction effects. That became the basis for computation of material properties of the electrons and the nuclei. For this work, Kohn received the 1998 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

“Density functional theory has ushered in the era of  ‘materials by design,’ perhaps the most dynamic, highly cited and one of the biggest accomplishments of theoretical physics,” said Distinguished Professor Ivan Schuller, who nominated Mayer Hall for APS historic designation. (Schuller interviewed Kohn in this 1998 interview).

“As the UC San Diego Department of Physics celebrates its 60th anniversary, it is remarkably fitting that the American Physical Society has designated Mayer Hall as an esteemed historic site,” said Division of Physical Sciences Dean Steven Boggs. “I enthusiastically applaud this recognition in honor of the momentous achievements of Walter Kohn, one of the founding faculty members of our Physics Department, and revered Emeritus Professor Lu Sham.”

APS also designated the Bevatron, a former particle accelerator at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as a historical site.

“We are pleased to recognize two very different examples of physicists doing what physicists do best, building things and making them work, in one case apparatus (the Bevatron and Bevalac) and in the other a new way of looking at and carrying out quantum mechanical calculations (density functional theory),” said APS Historic Sites Committee Chair Virginia Trimble, a professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine.


Mayer Hall in 1964. First occupied in 1963, the building honors former UC San Diego professors Maria Goeppert Mayer and Joseph Mayer. Credit: Robert Glasheen Photograph Collection, Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.

The Bevatron and Mayer Hall were selected from 15 member-nominated sites. Each site will receive a plaque acknowledging its exemplary contributions to physics, including the discovery of the anti-proton and the development of density functional theory.

“This is a great tribute to the groundbreaking work of Walter Kohn and Lu Sham. It is also a wonderful example of the impact of the research accomplishments of UC San Diego faculty on the history of science,” said Distinguished Professor Brian Maple, the chair of the Department of Physics.

The citation for Mayer Hall reads:

Here Walter Kohn and Lu Jeu Sham reduced to practice the method of Density Functional Theory (DFT), whose premises had been laid by Kohn and Pierre Hohenberg. DFT allows calculation of all the properties of quantum many-body systems from the ground state density of particles, a much simpler quantity than the wave function. Today, it is the most used technique for calculating the properties of nuclei, molecules, polymers, macromolecules, surfaces and bulk materials in the chemical, biological and physical sciences. For this achievement, Kohn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The full APS announcement is available here.

– With information from APS

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