The life of a multi-dimensional scientist – Richard Ernst

Hinnerk Feldwisch-Drentrup // A common hope of young scientists attending the Nobel Laureate Meeting is inspiration – not only for their scientific career, but also for their personal life as a scientist. For some, even the choice of staying in academia will depend on it, as a PhD student said this morning at a coffee table of the scientific breakfast. If not even Nobel laureates can ignite a lasting fire of enthusiasm for scientific discovery – who can?

Richard Ernst during his talk at #lnlm13
Credit: Hinnerk Feldwisch-Dentrup

In one of the most charismatic talks of this meeting, Professor Richard R. Ernst gave a very personal answer. When asking his professor which topic he should write his PhD thesis about, the reply consisted of three letters: “NMR” – the abbreviation for nuclear magnetic resonance that Ernst never had heard of. Back in the 1960s, this method to first align and then perturb atomic nuclei in a magnetic field in order to identify both their properties and their identity was insensitive and slow. When trying to optimize the methodology, Ernst struggled: Several of the early NMR instruments never really worked, which represented a very big disappointment. He wanted to leave the field – and also left ETH Zürich and Switzerland.

Instead, he moved to the “holy land of science”, California, and started at the company Varian. Their, he and his colleague Wes Anderson together worked on his old problem – and had a decisive idea, which made him believe both in science and NMR. Since Ernsts passion at that time was music, he knew that you could analyze a bunch of frequencies from different instruments by decomposing it in its components if you are musical. He tried to confer this idea to NMR: Instead of analyzing only one frequency that is characteristic for the different elements of a probe at a time, he evaluated the nuclear response to a short and intense radiofrequency pulse that covered large frequency bands. But what should you do when you are not musical – at least not for the sounds of nuclear vibrations? Luckily, at that time Ernst could buy a computer – and calculated the frequency spectrum, which revealed the identity of the nuclei studied. Fourier transform spectroscopy was born, and Ernst was caught by science. “That is how gripping science can be, and I hope it also will be as gripping for you”, Ernst said excitedly in his talk.

But his vision was a multi-dimensional approach that could not only identify the types of nuclei of a probe, but paint a bigger picture. By introducing a second pulse and repeating the experiment in a systematic manner, Ernst was able to analyze nuclear-nuclear interactions. Thereby, he could unveil three-dimensional molecular structures. A technique that revolutionized not only chemistry but that led also to a plethora of insights and applications in biology and medicine. For both discoveries, Ernst was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1991.

Richard R. Ernsts devotes his brains not only to science, but also to Tibetian art. Luckily for both worlds, they also overlap.
Credit: Hinnerk Feldwisch-Dentrupp



As he convincingly argued, however, hunting for a Nobel Prize represents a trap that is hard to escape – but represents a rat race, which science can lead to easily. Instead, he proposed to keep ones eyes open for dimensions beyond science, too. Like many scientist, Ernst continued to be a devoted musician. After his first trip to Asia, he developed another passion: Indian and Tibetian paintings. He got fascinated by both the spiritual and historical aspects of mandalas.



Traditional structures of Tibetian Mandalas decoded by Ernst
Credit: Hinnerk Feldwisch-Dentrup

Still being a researcher, Ernst also saw fractal like structures in the mandalas – and started to analyze the paintings himself. An infrared filter in front of his camera revealed codes that were used by master painters – to indicate the colors that students should use to fill specific areas. Nowadays, Ernst uses his own Raman Spectrometer for this purpose – an ideal tool to detect which type of pigment was used. A Nobel laureate, of course, also uses a professional method to determine the exact age of paintings: Ernst uses C14 carbon dating.


Hinnerk Feldwisch-Dentrup

Hinnerk Feldwisch-Drentrup works as a science communicator both for the Project Management Agency Karlsruhe and as a freelance journalist. His interests include neuroscience, medicine, and bioethics. Additionally, current challenges to “good” sciences caught his interest, such that he participated on a discourse project ( where young natural and social scientists as well as journalists reflected problems and possible solutions.

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