Industrialist Gives $100M to Solve Science's Biggest Questions

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
May 19, 2004

Fred Kavli likes to reminisce about his childhood in his native Norway—lying on his back at age 11, watching the northern lights dance between the mountains and pondering the great questions that have mystified both young and old since the dawn of humans: How did the universe begin? What was before the big bang? How is it that we think?

Now the 76-year-old multimillionare is using his personal fortune to help answer those very questions.

Humble Beginnings

After graduating with a physics degree from the Norwegian Institute of Technology, Kavli turned to business and moved to the United States. In 1958 he placed a small ad in the Los Angeles Times: Engineer seeks funding to start own company.

The business he founded, Kavlico Corporation, went on to become one of the world's largest suppliers of sensors for the aeronautics and automotive industries.

But the pondering scientist in Kavli never went away. The questions he examined as a young boy kept nagging at him.

Finally, in 2000, he decided to do something about it. He sold his company, and with a hundred million U.S. dollars in profits, he launched the Kavli Foundation with the lofty mission of supporting science for the benefit of humanity.

"Creating a successful business is OK," said Kavli in an interview at his offices in suburban Oxnard, California. "But I wanted to do something that was really worthwhile."

Now, Kavli acts like a man reborn, speaking with infectious enthusiasm about the challenge to answer some of the grandest questions in science.

He has narrowed his interests to three, still profoundly broad, fields: nanoscience (the study of objects at the molecular level), neuroscience (the study of nervous systems), and cosmology (the study of the nature of the universe). Research in these areas will be carried out by nine institutes—led by some of the finest minds in science—the Kavli Foundation has established at leading universities in the United States and Europe.

"These fields are a bottomless resource of information, a deep well that can we fish out of," Kavli said in his weighty Norwegian accent. "We will always have material to study."

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