Richard R. Ernst, a Swiss chemist who received the 1991 Nobel Prize for his work on refining nuclear magnetic resonance or NMR spectroscopy, the powerful chemical analysis method of MRT technology, died on June 4th in Winterthur in northern Switzerland. He was 87.
The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), at which Dr. Ernst, who had spent most of his career, announced the death on their website. No reason was given.
Dr. Ernst – whose work and interests included chemistry, physics, math, music, and the arts – helped develop NMR from a time-consuming niche technique to a critical scientific tool routinely used in local hospitals and chemistry laboratories.
As a chemist, he was outstanding.
“Comparing him to Einstein would offend physicists,” says Jeffrey A. Reimer, an NMR expert at the University of California at Berkeley. “But as far as its effect in the discipline is concerned, seriousness is fundamental.”
Dr. Serious was driven and demanding – especially of himself – and even as his stature grew, colleagues and former students said he had remarkably little ego. He was quick to pay tribute to his staff and to describe his own contributions in humble terms.
“I’m not really what you would imagine as a scientist who wants to understand the world,” he said in a 2001 Nobel interview. He continued, “I’m a toolmaker, not a real scientist in that sense, and I wanted to offer these problem-solving skills to other people.”
NMR spectroscopy was first developed in the 1940s and early 50s by Felix Bloch and Edward Mills Purcell, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1952 for this achievement. With this technique, scientists place a substance in a magnetic field that aligns the nuclei of its atoms. Then they bombard it with radio pulses that throw the nuclei out of alignment. When the nuclei return to alignment, the atoms emit unique electromagnetic signals that can be analyzed to determine the chemical composition and molecular structure of the material.
When Dr. Ernst, when he started studying NMR in the late 1950s, as a PhD student, researchers had to slowly scan a substance in a magnet and use continuous radio waves. She suffered, wrote Dr. Ernst in an autobiographical sketch on the Nobel website, “with a disappointingly low sensitivity that severely limits its application possibilities”.
Instead of slowly scanning a substance, Dr. Serious them with a short but intense pulse of radio waves. Then, with the help of a computer, he used a complex mathematical operation to analyze the signal. This method, known as Fourier Transform NMR or FT-NMR, was much more sensitive and allowed scientists to study more types of atoms and molecules, especially those that were lower in abundance.
“That was a very great invention that was ahead of its time,” says Matthias Ernst, physical chemist at ETH Zurich, who was a former student of Dr. Serious was (and is not related). That was the 1960s and the era of personal computing had not yet begun; Instead, Dr. Ernst and his colleagues transfer their data from the perforated tape to punch cards and then take them to a data center for processing.
In the 1970s, Dr. Seriously the two-dimensional NMR. This technique involves bombarding samples with sequences of radio pulses over time. The resulting signals provide more information about the sample and enable scientists to determine the exact composition and structure of large and complex biological molecules.
“It was beautiful,” said Dr. Reimer, an undergraduate chemistry student, as Dr. Ernst published his results. “Richard really did everything.”
Two-dimensional NMR is the foundation of MRI, a medical advance that enabled doctors to create detailed images of the body’s internal structures. “He made NMR the powerful technique it is in chemistry, biochemistry and biology today,” said Robert Tycko, physical chemist at the National Institutes of Health and president of the International Society of Magnetic Resonance, in a telephone interview.
Dr. Ernst was on a transatlantic flight when his Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced in October 1991; he learned of the honor from the pilot. But according to his characteristic modesty, he was unsettled when he won the award alone.
“He was very happy about the recognition,” says Beat H. Meier, physical chemist at ETH. “
Richard Robert Ernst was born on August 14, 1933 in Winterthur as the son of the architects Robert Ernst and Irma Ernst-Brunner. As a child he developed a passion for music and chemistry. When he was 13 years old, he found a box of chemicals in the attic of his house and learned that it belonged to an uncle.
“I was almost immediately fascinated by the possibilities of trying out all conceivable reactions with them, some of which led to explosions, others to unbearable air pollution in our house, which terrified my parents,” he wrote in his Nobel sketch. He started devouring chemistry books and gave up plans to become a composer.
He did his bachelor’s degree in chemistry at ETH Zurich in 1956 and then briefly served in the Swiss military before returning to ETH in 1962 for his doctorate in physical chemistry.
The next year he married Magdalena Kielholz. The bereaved are his wife and their three children Anna, Katharina and Hans-Martin. Matthias Ernst, his former student, said Dr. Ernst died in an old people’s home.
In 1963, Dr. Ernst joined the technology company Varian Associates in Palo Alto, California as a scientist. There he developed FT-NMR
He returned to ETH 1968 and taught and researched there until his retirement in 1998. In addition to the Nobel Prize, he received the Wolf Prize for Chemistry, the Horwitz Prize, the Marcel Benoist Prize and 17 honorary doctorates.
Dr. Ernst was an avowed “workaholic”, as he put it.
“He had dinner with his wife and then went back to his desk and worked late into the night,” says Alexander Wokaun, retired chemist and emeritus professor at the ETH. Ernst received his doctorate. Students. “But in this total devotion to science, I think he showed us what can be achieved.”
Dr. Ernst gave his students freedom and was interested in the work of young scientists who had not yet made a name for themselves. “At meetings of scientists or scientific conferences,” said Dr. Tycko, “he sat in the front row and took careful notes and listened to other people describe their work, which is actually very unusual for someone of his stature.”
Dr. Ernst maintained his love of music and also developed a passion for Tibetan scroll paintings, which he put together with his wife and adorned almost every wall of their home with them, said Dr. Wokaun. He used advanced laboratory techniques to examine the paintings’ pigments to find out where and when they were made.
After receiving his Nobel Prize, he traveled and lectured on the responsibility he believed scientists have to contribute to society.
“He always said to me, ‘It’s not enough for a scientist to accumulate knowledge just for the sake of knowledge,'” said Dr. Wokaun. “‘What for, for what purpose are you doing this?'”