Richard R. Ernst

Richard R. Ernst bigraphy, stories - Nobel laureate in chemistry

Richard R. Ernst : biography

14 August 1933 –

Richard Robert Ernst (born August 14, 1933) is a Swiss physical chemist and Nobel Laureate.

Born in Winterthur, Switzerland, Ernst was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1991 for his contributions towards the development of Fourier Transform nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy while at Varian Associates, Palo Alto and the subsequent development of multi-dimensional NMR techniques. name=Earnstbio> These underpin applications of NMR both to chemistry (NMR spectroscopy) and to medicine (MRI). He also received the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize in 1991.

Early life

Ernst lived in a house that his grandfather, a merchant, had built in 1898. Ernst’s father, Robert Ernst, was teaching as an architect at the technical high school of their town. He also had two sisters. His town had a lot of art and industry in it; a lot of the art had to do with music. Winterthur had a small but first-rank orchestra that was famous throughout Switzerland and also an industry in diesel motors and railway engines.

Ernst soon became interested in both sides. Playing the violoncello brought him into numerous chamber and church music ensembles, and stimulated his interest in musical composition that he tried extensively while in high school. At the age of 13, though, Ernst found in his attic a case filled with chemicals, remainders of an uncle who died in 1923 and was, as a metallurgical engineer, interested in chemistry and photography. "I became almost immediately fascinated by the possibilities of trying out all conceivable reactions with them, some leading to explosions, others to unbearable poisoning of the air in our house, frightening my parents." Ernst said but he had survived and started to read all chemistry books that he could get a hand on, first some 19th-century books from his home library that did not provide much reliable information, and then he emptied the rather extensive city library. Soon, though, he knew that he wanted become a chemist, rather than a composer. "I wanted to understand the secrets behind my chemical experiments and behind the processes in nature."


After he had finished high school, Ernst started with high expectations and enthusiasm to study chemistry at the famous Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH-Z). But he was disappointed by the state of chemistry in the early 1950s as it was taught at ETH-Z; the students had to memorize uncountable facts that even the professors did not understand. The physical chemistry lectures did not reveal much insight either, they were limited just to classical thermodynamics. So, Ernst had to return to reading in order to get the knowledge he wanted. He often read the book "Theoretical Chemistry" by S. Glasstone. In it he learned about the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, spectroscopy, statistical mechanics, and statistical thermodynamics.

He studied and served as faculty at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, from which he is now retired. He is Honorary Doctor of the Technical University of Munich and University of Zurich. Ernst received both his diploma in chemistry (1957) and his Ph.D. in physical chemistry (1962) from ETH Zürich.


Then, from 1963 to 1968 he worked as a research chemist in Palo Alto, California. In 1966, working with an American colleague, Ernst discovered that the sensitivity of NMR techniques (hitherto limited to analysis of only a few nuclei) could be dramatically increased by replacing the slow, sweeping radio waves traditionally used in NMR spectroscopy with short, intense pulses. His discovery enabled analysis of a great many more types of nuclei and smaller amounts of materials.

In 1968 he returned to Switzerland to teach at his alma mater. He was made assistant professor in 1970 and full professor in 1976. His second major contribution to the field of NMR spectroscopy was a technique that enabled a high-resolution, “two-dimensional” study of larger molecules than had previously been accessible to NMR. With Ernst’s refinements, scientists were able to determine the three-dimensional structure of organic and inorganic compounds and of biological macromolecules such as proteins; to study the interaction between biological molecules and other substances such as metal ions, water, and drugs; to identify chemical species; and to study the rates of chemical reactions.

Ernst also was credited with many inventions and held several patents in his field.


He is a foreign fellow of Bangladesh Academy of Sciences

He is member of the Scientific Board.

The 2009 Bel Air Film Festival featured the world premiere of a documentary film on Ernst Science Plus Dharma Equals Social Responsibility. Produced by Carlo Burton, the film takes place in Ernst’s hometown in Switzerland.