Interview with Prof.Richard Ernst, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry

Prof. Richard R. Ernst is a well known researcher in the field of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Spectroscopy. Prof. Ernst Ernst was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1991 for his contributions towards the development of Fourier Transform nuclear magnetic resonance (FT-NMR) spectroscopy and the subsequent development of multi-dimensional NMR techniques. 
 
Prof. Ernst was born 1933 in Winterthur, Switzerland. His father, Robert Ernst, was teaching as an architect at the technical high school of our city. At the age of 13, He found in the attic a case filled with chemicals and the journey began. After diploma as a “Diplomierter Ingenieur Chemiker” and some extensive military service, Ernst started a PhD thesis in the laboratory of Professor Günthard. Fortunately, he came in contact with a young and brilliant scientist Hans Primas, who never went through any formal studies but nevertheless acquired rapidly whatever he needed for his work that was then concerned with high resolution nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), a field in its infancy at that time. After some years of work, he became interested in industry and joined Varian Associates in US. During last years at Varian (1966-68), he developed numerous computer applications in spectroscopy for automated experiments and improved data processing with his co-workers. He continued to work on methodological improvements of time-domain NMR with repetitive pulse experiments and Fourier double resonance. In addition, he with his coworkers performed the first pulsed time-domain chemically-induced dynamic nuclear polarization (CIDNP) experiments. In this way, He struggled with the NMR technique, which was about to die at that time and made this technique so profound, accurate and thus useful in medicine that now we are observing the applications of NMR spectroscopy in medicine as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which is very important tool in imaging of internal parts of body.
Prof. Richard Ernst is now 78 years old, but very hopeful and energetic and careful towards new responsibilities. He has keen interest in Asian arts, music, and culture. He enjoys interactions with young researchers and motivating them for doing valuable work for the betterment of the society.
Recently Mr. Meher Wan, got opportunity to interact with Prof. Richard R. Ernst on his life and research work. Here are the excerpts of interaction.
First of all, I thank you Professor for accepting my request for your. I feel that your thoughts will motivate young minds to opt science as their career with social responsibility.
Meher Wan.   Your work was considered for Nobel in 1991. After receiving Nobel Prize for Chemistry, How your life has been changed? What type of relax or responsibility do you feel after this award?
Prof. Richard R. Ernst .My life changed very little! You know that our shadow follows us irrespective of superficial successes. I was always my biggest own hurdle to overcome. I had afterward even less time to relax. But indeed, my responsibility grew. I feel obliged to say what I think about our egomaniac course of doing business and structuring our personal lifes. I try to teach as much as I can, being aware that after all it will not help too much except for providing me better sleep.
MW.   Let me ask you about your days of childhood. How do you remember the childhood and boyhood days of Richard? How did you perform in your schools? Where did you study?
R. Ernst. I went to school in our city Winterthur. I was not a good student. I was constantly thinking how I could annoy my teachers. I was almost thrown our of high school. I mostly learned by myself, for example by doing chemical experiments in the basement of our house; and I survived and became a chemist!
MW.   A very curious violinist moved towards chemistry, remember that times for us.
R. Ernst. I had two passions in my youth: chemistry and music. I played the cello and I was composing music besides doing chemistry experiments. But surely, I selected the proper profession!
MW.    You state in your autobiography for website of Swedish Academy, “I was rapidly disappointed by the state of chemistry in the early fifties as it was taught.”I think, this is the trend of schooling of science in many countries till now. According to you what should be the mechanism of education for best understanding of subject by a student? 
R. Ernst. The best way of education is to evoke the curiosity of the students and then let them discover nature and the world themselves. Classroom teaching is absolutely useless, it just causes boredom.
MW.    When you started your Ph.D., what was in your mind? Did you want to serve the nation or industry or somewhat else?
R. Ernst. I wanted to become a respectable person who contributes something of value for mankind and gains respect in this way
MW.  Which quality of NMR spectroscopy impressed you, that you were motivated to invest your whole life for this field of science?
R. Ernst. I was not primarily interested in NMR, but I was thrown into NMR and I started to like it. This happens so often in life. We are not born mathematicians or biologists. But our interests grow accidentally by doing. And then you have to stay in a field until you have achieved something.
MW.  Let us know the journey for making of Fourier Transform NMR. What problems did you face for this work? Any interesting story related to this instrumentation. I read somewhere; the research paper related to this work was rejected two times.
R. Ernst. NMR suffered from very sensitivity and it was necessary to find a way to improve sensitivity. Parallel data acquisition was the solution. It led to Fourier transformation.
MW.   Which scientific goal do you still want to achieve?
R. Ernst. In the moment I am working on pigment analysis in Central Asian paintings in order to understand their origin and dating and for finding means of conservation. NMR is useless for this purpose and I am using Raman spectroscopy.
MW.   What phenomenons lead your group to think about 2D Fourier transform NMR spectroscopy?
R. Ernst. For determining molecular structures, one needs spatial relations between nuclei. A two-dimensional map may contain this type of information.
MW. Now Multi-dimensional spectroscopy is in existence, what do you hope about future of this field?
R. Ernst. I hope that it will find even more wide-spread application.
MW. Techniques developed by you and your group have very wide applications now in different fields of science, How do you feel about? Have you expected the wide range of application of these, when you started the work on it?
R. Ernst.  What could I ask for more? There is nothing better in life than to experience the “usefulness” of your “children”!
MW.   In your valuable life which thing you missed, and want to do?
R. Ernst. I hope to find more time to contemplate on the sense of our lives. I hope earnestly to be less disturbed by obnoxious journalists!!!
MW.   You have interest in culture and art of different continents, how do the arts of Tibet impress you?
R. Ernst. I like in particular the colorfulness and the visuality that allows an easy entrance across language barriers. It contains a wealth of immortal truths.
MW. You often talk about the responsibilities of researchers.
R. Ernst. The responsibility is more with academic teachers than with the researchers. anyway research is only a means of teaching and learning. Academic teachers are the only ones who can express what they think without the danger of losing the job, as politicians and merchants would. Thus they are obliged to take advantage of their privileged position.
MW. What do you want to convey to the young minds who want to opt science as their career? and to common public also.
R. Ernst. When ever you try to honestly evaluate the surroundings and our responsibilities to improve them for the sake of future generations, you are in the midst of scientific reasoning and it is not far of becoming a professional scientist, researcher and in particular a responsible teacher.
I am very grateful to you that you invested your precious time for us. I am studying your articles about science and society. Hoping for next conversation on society, science and cultures very soon. 
 
(This interview was originally published in Dream 2047 a bilingual magazine of Vigyan Prasar of DST, Govt of India, you can access it by clicking the hyperlink, you can read it in Hindi too)

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