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 method of chemical analysis behind M.R.I. Technologie, 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 N.M.R. from a time-consuming niche technique to a critical scientific tool routinely used in local hospitals and chemistry laboratories for undergraduate degrees.
As a chemist, he was outstanding.
"Comparing him to Einstein would be offensive to physicists," said Jeffrey A. Reimer, an N.M.R. Expert at the University of California, Berkeley. "But as far as its effect in the discipline is concerned, seriousness is fundamental."
Dr. Serious was driven and demanding – especially on himself – and even as his stature grew, he had remarkably little ego, said his colleagues and former students. He was quick to pay tribute to his co-workers 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 other people these problem-solving skills."
N.M.R. 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 realign themselves, the atoms emit unique electromagnetic signals that can be analyzed to determine the chemical composition and molecular structure of the material.
When Dr. Seriously with studying the N.M.R. As a graduate student in the late 1950s, researchers had to slowly scan a substance in a magnet and apply 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 N.M.R. or F.T.-N.M.R., was far more sensitive and allowed scientists to study more types of atoms and molecules, especially those that were present in small amounts.
“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 punched tape to punched cards and then take them to a data center for processing.
In the 1970s, Dr. Serious two-dimensional N.M.R. With this technique, samples are bombarded 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 N.M.R. is the foundation of M.R.I., a medical advancement that enabled doctors to create detailed images of the body's internal structures. "He has N.M.R. the powerful technology 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 he found a box of chemicals in the attic of his house and learned that it had belonged to an uncle.
"I was fascinated almost immediately by the possibilities of trying out all possible reactions with them. Some led to explosions, others to unbearable air pollution in our house, which terrified my parents," he wrote in the 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 a 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 F.T.-N.M.R.
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, carefully taking notes while other people described 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 used them to decorate almost every wall of their home, said Dr. Wokaun. He used advanced laboratory techniques to examine the paintings' pigments to see 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?" "