A manufacturer, Kavli came to the Los Angeles area from Norway, leaving his native country as soon as he got his engineering degree. He built electronic sensors used in airplanes and cars, and sold his company in 2000 for $345 million — and then went to night school to learn real estate investing. He built his fortune to about $600 million, and then proceeded to give it away. “You work all your life to make some money,” Kavli said. Philanthropy “sort of gives you a purpose to your life.” He noted that the Nobel Prizes, which are issued by his native country and Sweden, are nice, but they usually go to people at the end of their careers.
Kavli wanted to inspire young people to do more research. So first, he earmarked $100 million of his fortune to go to universities all over the world. Then, he created the $1 million Kavli Prize especially for younger researchers to give them an incentive to do basic research in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience — “the biggest, the smallest, and the most complex,” he said. “Basic research is to work at the very edge, the very border of, of knowledge, and move that border forward,” Kavli said in 2005. “You look and look for new secrets, and you don’t know where it’s going to lead you.” Where did his wonder for science come from? As a boy, “I used to ski across the vast white expanses of a quiet and lonely mountaintop,” he once said. “At times, the whole sky was aflame with the northern lights shifting and dancing across the sky down to the white-clad mountaintops. In the stillness and loneliness of the white mountains, I pondered the universe, the planet, nature and the wonders of man. I’m still pondering.” Kavli died November 21 at his home in Santa Barbara, from cholangiocarcinoma, an unusual form of cancer of epithelial cells. He was 86.