Fred Kavli collects Norwegian oil paintings and ornate Asian vases, installing them lovingly around his sprawling, 12,000-square-foot mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, Calif. But his most heartfelt passion has nothing to do with art or antiques. As he gazes toward an orange sunset, Kavli begins to speak of life’s fundamental questions. He wonders about exploring the processes of the universe, generating nonpolluting forms of power and developing lightweight but strong nanoscale materials. Instead of spending his fortune on treasures of the past, he has dedicated it to these, the possibilities of the future.
Over the past five years, the 77-year-old Norwegian-born businessman has funded 10 basic science research institutes, created an operating foundation to explore pet research questions and laid out a plan to offer three $1-million awards biannually that would compete with the Nobel Prizes. “Because I believe in it,” this unusual philanthropist explains simply, as if the reasons were obvious. “Life as we know it today would not be possible without science.”