Richard R. Ernst

Richard Ernst

Richard R. Ernst in 2009
Born Richard Robert Ernst
(1933-08-14) 14 August 1933
Winterthur, Switzerland
Nationality Swiss
Alma mater ETH Zurich (PhD)
Thesis Kernresonanz-Spektroskopie mit stochastischen Hochfrequenzfeldern (1962)
Notable awards

Richard Robert Ernst (born 14 August 1933) is a Swiss physical chemist and Nobel Laureate.[2]

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 (NMR) spectroscopy[3] while at Varian Associates, Palo Alto and the subsequent development of multi-dimensional NMR techniques.[4][5][6][7][8] These underpin applications to both to chemistry with NMR spectroscopy and to medicine with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).[1]

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 Zurich). But he was disappointed by the state of chemistry in the early 1950s as it was taught at ETH Zurich; 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 "Textbook of Physical Chemistry " by S. Glasstone. In it he learned about the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, spectroscopy, statistical mechanics, and statistical thermodynamics.

Ernst received both his diploma in chemistry in 1957 and his Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1962[9] from ETH Zurich.[10]

Research and career

Ernst served as faculty at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, from which he is now retired.[11] From 1963 to 1968, Ernst worked as a research chemist with Weston A. Anderson[12] in Palo Alto, California at the Varian Corporation. 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.

When he was in California, Ernst regularly attended the meeting on NMR spectroscopy that was held at the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh. He frequently spoke about the advances he was making. All of the important investigators of NMR in the world were also attendees.

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 the experimental demonstration of the “two-dimensional” NMR technique first introduced by Jean Jeener at the 1971 AMPERE Summer School. Multi-dimensional NMR enabled a high-resolution study of larger molecules than had previously been accessible to NMR. With Ernst's refinements, scientists were able to determine the 3D 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.[13][14][15]

Awards and honours

Richard R. Ernst, UNESCO 2011

Ernst is a foreign fellow of the Bangladesh Academy of Sciences.[16] He was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) in 1993.[1] He was awarded the John Gamble Kirkwood Medal in 1989. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1991 was awarded to Richard R. Ernst "for his contributions to the development of the methodology of high resolution nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy". MLA style: "The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1991". Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 10 Nov 2015. <>

He holds Honorary Doctorates from the Technical University of Munich and University of Zurich.

Ernst is member of the World Knowledge Dialogue Scientific Board. Ernst was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize of Columbia University in 1991.[17] He was also awarded the Tadeus Reichstein Medal in 2000 and the Romanian National Medal in 2004.

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.[18]

Personal life

Ernst is extremely interested and knowledgeable concerning Tibetan Buddhist art. He has studied non-destructive methods of learning the chemistry of the pigments that were using in their paintings.


  1. 1 2 3 "Professor Richard Ernst ForMemRS". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2015-10-11.
  2. Alger, J R (1992). "The 1991 Nobel Prize in chemistry awarded to an MRI investigator". Journal of computer assisted tomography. 16 (1): 1–2. doi:10.1097/00004728-199201000-00001. PMID 1729287.
  3. Aue, W. P. (1976). "Two-dimensional spectroscopy. Application to nuclear magnetic resonance". The Journal of Chemical Physics. 64 (5): 2229. doi:10.1063/1.432450. ISSN 0021-9606.
  4. Freeview video interview with Richard Ernst by the Vega Science Trust
  5. Interview with Professor Richard R. Ernst by Joanna Rose, science writer, 8 December 2001.
  6. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1991
  7. Ernst Autobiography at
  8. Ernst, Richard, R. "Richard R. Ernst". Retrieved July 18, 2015.
  9. Ernst, Richard R. (1962). Kernresonanz-Spektroskopie mit stochastischen Hochfrequenzfeldern (PhD thesis). Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich. doi:10.3929/ethz-a-000091764.
  10. Prof. Dr. Richard R. Ernst, ETH Zurich Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, (Retrieved April 18, 2016)
  11. Prof. Dr. Richard R. Ernst, ETH Zurich Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, (Retrieved April 18, 2016)
  12. Yong Zhou (2013-09-03). "NMR and EPR Spectroscopy". Varian Associates. ISBN 9781483226699.
  13. U.S. Patent 4,045,723
  14. U.S. Patent 4,070,611
  15. U.S. Patent 4,134,058
  16. List of Fellows of Bangladesh Academy of Sciences
  17. The Official Site of Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize
  18. "Film Festival Ticker".
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