Richard R. Ernst Biography (1933-)


Richard R. Ernst was the 1991 recipient of the Nobel and Wolf Prizes in Chemistry and the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize at Columbia University, a joint awardto Ernst and his colleague Kurt Wüthrich for their development of the methodology of high-resolution nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR)spectroscopy, the most important instrumental measuring technique within chemistry. Ernst'scontributions in this field led to the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the biomedical instrument widely used today to perform noninvasivediagnosis of the human body.

Born on August 14, 1933, to Robert Ernst and Irma Brunner in Winterthur, Switzerland, Richard Robert Ernst was educated at the Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich, where he received his doctorate in 1962. In 1976 he became a full professor at the ETH. After receiving his Ph.D., Ernst moved to Palo Alto, California, to become a research scientist at Varian Associates. There he worked with Weston A. Anderson on efforts to make NMR spectroscopy more sensitive.

Ernst's contribution built on the NMR experiments reported in 1945 by Felix Bloch at Stanford University and Edward Mills Purcell at Harvard. Bloch and Purcell shared the Nobel Prize in physics for this work. They demonstrated thatsome atomic nuclei can be knocked out of alignment in a strong magnetic field when exposed to a slow sweep of radio frequencies. The nuclei realign in response to "resonant" frequencies, emitting signals that are like a chemical signature. When he received his prize, Purcell predicted NMR would become a tool for chemical analysis. For that to happen, however, it was necessary to overcome limited sensitivity of the early NMR method to the chemical signatureof the substance being analyzed. Only a few substances--hydrogen, fluorine, and phosphorus--had spectra strong enough to identify reliably.

In 1966 Ernst and Anderson were able to enhance NMR spectra by replacing theslow sweep of radio frequencies with short, intense pulses. Spectra too weakto identify previously became discernable. The spectra resulting from exposure to the pulse of radio frequencies were complex, and to analyze them, Ernstmade use of a Fourier transformation, which computers of the mid-1960s coulduse to interpret the small fluctuations in brightness of the NMR spectra. NMRequipment became widely available to the chemical research community by theearly 1970s.

Ernst later developed an even more sophisticated variant, two-dimensional NMRspectroscopy, which replaced single pulses of radio frequencies with a sequence of pulses, just as the pulse had replaced a sweep of radio frequencies. Building further on the concept underlying this advance, subsequent multidimensional techniques (COSY, for example, which stands for correlation spectroscopy; others are SECSY, NOESY, and ROESY) made it possible to analyze the three-dimensional structures of proteins and other large biological molecules. They were the basis for the development of magnetic resonance imaging or MRI, which is used in medical diagnosis. The methods also enable researchers to gather information about the chemical environment of the molecules under study.

In 1991 Ernst received the Nobel Prize in chemistry and the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize at Columbia University. The Horwitz Prize was a joint award to Ernst and his colleague Kurt Wüthrich for their work in developing NMR methods that could show both the behavior and structure of complex biological molecules. Ernst also received the Wolf Prize in Chemistry that year.

Ernst and his group are engaged in studying how molecules interact with one another over time and how they change shape. His work is considered cross-disciplinary, since it falls between chemistry and physics and also involves problems in quantum mechanics (a theory that assumes that energy exists in discrete units). His book on NMR is considered a classic in the field, invaluable for its cross-references to related literature.

Today, Ernst continues his research at the ETH, and is a professor in the school's laboratory of physical chemistry. He holds a number of patents for hisinventions and has received recognition from many scientific societies for his work. He serves on the editorial boards of several journals dealing with magnetic resonance.

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