Richard R. Ernst, a Swiss chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1991 for his work refining nuclear magnetic resonance, or N.M.R., spectroscopy, the highly effective technique of chemical evaluation behind M.R.I. expertise, died on June 4 in Winterthur, in northern Switzerland. He was 87.
The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), the place Dr. Ernst had spent virtually his total profession, announced the death on its web site. No trigger was given.
Dr. Ernst — whose work and pursuits spanned chemistry, physics, math, music and artwork — helped develop N.M.R. from a distinct segment, time-intensive approach right into a vital scientific software routinely utilized in native hospitals and undergraduate chemistry labs.
As a chemist he was pre-eminent.
“To compare him to Einstein would offend physicists,” mentioned Jeffrey A. Reimer, an N.M.R. knowledgeable at the University of California, Berkeley. “But in terms of his impact in the discipline, Ernst is foundational.”
Dr. Ernst was pushed and demanding — of himself above all others — and whilst his stature grew, he had remarkably little ego, his colleagues and former college students mentioned. He was fast to offer credit score to collaborators and described his personal contributions in modest phrases.
“I’m not really what one would imagine to be a scientist who wants to understand the world,” he said in a 2001 Nobel interview. He continued, “I’m a toolmaker and not really a scientist in this sense, and I wanted to provide other people these capabilities of solving problems.”
N.M.R. spectroscopy was first developed within the Forties and early ’50s by Felix Bloch and Edward Mills Purcell, who shared the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physics for the achievement. Using this method, scientists place a substance in a magnetic discipline, which brings the nuclei of its atoms into alignment. They then bombard it with radio pulses, which pressure the nuclei out of alignment. As the nuclei return to alignment, the atoms give off distinctive electromagnetic indicators that may be analyzed to find out the chemical composition and molecular construction of the fabric.
When Dr. Ernst started learning N.M.R. as a graduate pupil within the late Fifties, the tactic required researchers to scan a substance in a magnet slowly and apply steady radio waves. It suffered, Dr. Ernst wrote in an autobiographical sketch on the Nobel web site, “from a disappointingly low sensitivity that severely limits its applications.”
Instead of slowly scanning a substance, Dr. Ernst hit it with a brief however intense pulse of radio waves. Then, with the assistance of a pc, he utilized a posh mathematical operation to research the sign. This technique, often called (*87*) Transform N.M.R., or F.T.-N.M.R., was much more delicate, permitting scientists to review extra sorts of atoms and molecules, notably those who have been in low abundance.
“That was a very big invention which was ahead of his time,” mentioned Matthias Ernst, a bodily chemist at ETH Zurich who was a former pupil of Dr. Ernst’s (and is of no relation). This was the Nineteen Sixties, and the non-public computing period had not but begun; as an alternative, Dr. Ernst and his colleagues needed to switch their knowledge from punch tape to punch playing cards after which carry them to a pc middle for processing.
In the Nineteen Seventies, Dr. Ernst developed two-dimensional N.M.R. In this method, samples are bombarded with sequences of radio pulses over time. The ensuing indicators present extra information concerning the pattern and permit scientists to find out the exact composition and construction of enormous and complicated organic molecules.
“It was beautiful,” mentioned Dr. Reimer, who was an undergraduate chemistry pupil when Dr. Ernst revealed his outcomes. “Richard really pushed the envelope.”
Two-dimensional N.M.R. is the premise of M.R.I., a medical development that allowed medical doctors to create detailed photographs of the physique’s inner buildings. “He made N.M.R. the powerful technique that it is today in chemistry, biochemistry and biology,” mentioned Robert Tycko, a bodily chemist at the National Institutes of Health and the president of the International Society of Magnetic Resonance, in a cellphone interview.
Dr. Ernst was on a trans-Atlantic flight when his Nobel Prize in Chemistry was introduced in October 1991; he realized of the distinction from the pilot. But consistent with his attribute modesty, he was unsettled to find that he was the only winner of the prize.
“He was very happy for the recognition,” mentioned Beat H. Meier, a bodily chemist at ETH “But he also was a little disturbed by the fact that he got it alone and that he was singled out when a lot of people have also contributed.”
Richard Robert Ernst was born on Aug. 14, 1933, in Winterthur to Robert Ernst, an architect, and Irma Ernst-Brunner. As a toddler, he developed a ardour for music and chemistry. When he was 13, he discovered a case of chemical substances within the attic of his residence and realized that it had belonged to an uncle of his.
“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,” he wrote within the Nobel sketch. He started devouring chemistry books and deserted plans to develop into a composer.
He earned his undergraduate diploma in chemistry at ETH Zurich in 1956 after which briefly served within the Swiss army earlier than returning to ETH for a doctorate in bodily chemistry, which he earned in 1962.
He married Magdalena Kielholz the following yr. Survivors embrace his spouse and their three kids, Anna, Katharina and Hans-Martin. Matthias Ernst, his former pupil, mentioned Dr. Ernst died in a retirement residence.
In 1963, Dr. Ernst joined the expertise firm Varian Associates in Palo Alto, Calif., as a scientist. It was there that he developed F.T.-N.M.R.
He returned to ETH in 1968 and taught and performed analysis there till his retirement in 1998. In addition to the Nobel, he obtained the Wolf Prize for Chemistry, the Horwitz Prize, the Marcel Benoist Prize and 17 honorary doctorates.
Dr. Ernst was a self-confessed “work-addict,” as he put it.
“He had supper with his wife, and then went back to his desk and worked late in the night,” mentioned Alexander Wokaun, a retired chemist and professor emeritus at ETH who had been certainly one of Dr. Ernst’s Ph.D. college students. “But in that total devotion to science, I think he showed us what can be achieved.”
Dr. Ernst gave his college students freedom and took an curiosity within the work of younger scientists who had not but made names for themselves. “At gatherings of scientists or scientific conferences,” Dr. Tycko mentioned, “he would sit in the front row and take careful notes listening to other people describe their work, which is very unusual, actually, for someone of his stature.”
Dr. Ernst retained his love of music and in addition developed a ardour for Tibetan scroll work, amassing an enormous collection of them along with his spouse and adorning practically each wall of their residence with them, Dr. Wokaun mentioned. He used superior laboratory methods to look at the pigments of the work to be taught the place and once they had been created.
After receiving his Nobel, he traveled and gave lectures concerning the duty that he believed scientists had in contributing to society.
“He always told me, ‘It’s not just enough for a scientist to accumulate knowledge, just for the sake of it,’” Dr. Wokaun mentioned. “‘For what good, for what purpose, are you doing that?’”