R.Ichard Ernst, a chemist whose Nobel Prize-winning work brought practical applications in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, died on June 4th at the age of 87 in his hometown in Switzerland, announced the ETH Zurich. Ernst’s work on the further development of NMR technology paved the way for magnetic resonance imaging (MRT), which has been a mainstay of medical diagnostics for more than 30 years.
Born on August 14, 1933 in Winterthur, Switzerland, Ernst grew up with his two sisters with his mother and father, who taught architecture at a vocational school. He was an accomplished cello player with an eye for composing music, but as a teenager he stumbled upon a case of chemicals belonging to his late uncle who, according to his Nobel autobiography, was a metallurgical engineer.
“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,” wrote Ernst in his autobiography. “But I survived and started reading all the chemistry books I could get my hands on.”
He attended college at ETH Zurich to study chemistry, but quickly became disillusioned with the memorization involved. After graduating in 1957, Ernst entered the military for a few years. He returned to ETH Zurich to do a PhD in physical chemistry in 1962, focusing on NMR technology.
Richard Ernst next to an NMR spectrometer, around 1980
NMR spectroscopy uses a strong magnetic field to identify the chemical composition of certain molecules. Due to their spin, the nuclei of some atoms can absorb radio frequencies and generate a characteristic resonance wave, like a tuning fork. The different frequencies of a given sample are then plotted on a graph, with the most common nuclei having the highest peaks, so scientists can see what is in the sample.
When Ernst started his work, the magnetic fields inside NMR devices were not uniform, which changed the results depending on the position of the sample. In 1963 Ernst moved to Palo Alto, California to work for Varian Associates. The advent of electromagnets made for a more uniform and reliable magnetic field.
In 1968 he returned to ETH Zurich as a lecturer and stayed there for the duration of his career. He continued his work with NMR and created various magnetic pulse techniques as well as the two-dimensional NMR spectrum, which could represent the frequency on two axes and enabled researchers to detect the chemical shift or the changes in the spin of a nucleus by determining the proximity other atoms.
His work laid the foundation for the MRI technology developed in the 1970s. Like NMR, MRI uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to identify the frequencies of atoms in the body. Rather than making a diagram, MRI identifies the abundance of hydrogen easily found in fat and water to create an internal map of the human body that can show the presence of cancer and brain injury. Ernst was the only winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1991.
Serious was the subject of the 2009 documentary Science + Dharma = Social Responsibilitywho explores his passion for useful research applications and provides insights into himself, including a look at his Tibetan art collection. While traveling in Asia, he learned to appreciate Tibetan art and Buddhism, says ETH Zurich.
His Nobel autobiography is full of names of staff and mentors he has had over the years, and credits them with all of the ways they have helped his work grow and shine. Finally, he had a special message for his wife.
“I am very grateful for the encouragement and the occasional adjustment of my standards of values by my wife Magdalena, who, despite all the difficulties of being married to a selfish workaholic with an unpredictable temperament, has remained loyal to me for over 28 years,” continues Ernst’s autobiography from 1991 and credits her for raising her three children, two of whom became elementary school teachers. “I’m not surprised that they show no intention of following in my footsteps, although if I had a second chance myself I would certainly try to repeat my current career.”
Ernst left behind Magdalena and her three children Anna Magdalena, Katharina Elisabeth and Hans-Martin Walter.