The making of a chemist

Richard Ernst won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1991 for his work on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, or NMR, spectroscopy. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Richard Ernst won the Nobel Prize in chem­istry in 1991 for his work on Nuclear Mag­netic Res­o­nance, or NMR, spec­troscopy. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

By the time he was 3 years old, Richard Ernst had not yet learned to speak his native lan­guage. His only way of com­mu­ni­cating was through the trans­la­tion of his sister, Wreni, who was a year younger and the only person in the world who under­stood Ernst’s made-​​up language.

But Ernst—who would even­tu­ally go on to earn the Nobel Prize in chemistry—turned out just fine.

As he said in a lec­ture hosted last week by the North­eastern Col­lege of Sci­ence and orga­nized by the New Eng­land NMR Com­mu­nity, we’re all researchers when we’re chil­dren. “We explore the world with our ana­lyt­ical tongues,” he said. 

In 1945, Ernst was 12 years old, speaking flu­ently, and exploring the hidden trea­sures of his par­ents’ Vic­to­rian home. The “chem­ical ghosts” of the house, as he put it, urged him to crawl through a tiny door in the attic that he’d never entered before and into a box con­taining the “remains of an uncle”—no, not his ashes (as I orig­i­nally thought) but chem­i­cals and exper­i­mental equipment.

He set up a lab in the base­ment and com­menced a life­time of chem­ical exper­i­men­ta­tion and analysis. He read all the books on the sub­ject in his par­ents’ library, though many of them con­tained incor­rect infor­ma­tion (such as one that claimed the chem­ical for­mula for water to be HO). “I had to relearn chem­istry sev­eral times after that,” he chuckled.

When Ernst even­tu­ally found him­self in the office of his grad­uate adviser, Hans Gun­ther, dis­cussing poten­tial topics for his dis­ser­ta­tion, the pro­fessor said, “NMR.” Ernst had never heard the term. “This will be your future life,” Gun­ther told him.

And then over the next five min­utes, Ernst learned that lurking inside every mol­e­cule in our bodies are “nuclear spies.” Each atom has unique mag­netic prop­er­ties, which cause it to wobble around, he said.  This motion has a pre­cise fre­quency that can be detected with Nuclear Mag­netic Res­o­nance spec­troscopy. The tech­nique promised an accu­rate pic­ture of dif­ferent types of atoms in a molecule.

The only problem with it back in 1958—when Ernst was an eager, young grad­uate student—was that it was incred­ibly slow and there­fore not yet fea­sible as an ana­lyt­ical tool. Ernst spent the next sev­eral years devel­oping strate­gies to speed up the process. In 1963 he trav­eled to Cal­i­fornia to work at the fore­front of the field with leaders like Wes Anderson of Varian, a promi­nent instru­men­ta­tion company.

Anderson sug­gested Ernst try using 10 sep­a­rate spec­trom­e­ters to simul­ta­ne­ously scan a single mol­e­cule, and thus break the work up into tenths. But it would also cost 10 times as much as a single scan, Ernst real­ized. Instead, he called on his expe­ri­ence as a musi­cian. He knew of a math­e­mat­ical trans­form, called the Fourier trans­form, that can take a wave­form of recorded music and pro­vide the musical chord that pro­duced it. He used the same approach to inex­pen­sively and effec­tively reveal the nuclear spies he’d been chasing since his grad­uate school days.

The idea was to strike the entire mol­e­cule at once, as if pounding all the keys on a piano, to elicit a cacophony of indi­vidual fre­quen­cies. Using the trans­form, he could dis­en­tangle them from the overall response. The com­pu­ta­tional power of the day kept the turn­around time to an entire week, but thanks to Moore’s law, that soon became a non-​​issue. To this day, NMRs and MRIs (which use the same prin­ciple) rely on Ernst’s break­through to elu­ci­date some of the most impor­tant prob­lems in sci­ence and medicine.

One night in 1991, Ernst was sleeping on a flight from Moscow to New York. He awoke to the pilot telling him he’d received a phone call. This was long before cell phones, so Ernst laughed him off. “Let me go back to sleep,” he recalled saying. But the pilot per­sisted, and Ernst soon found him­self stuffed in the cockpit wearing a radio headset. They’d patched him through to the Nobel Com­mittee in Stock­holm who was telling him he’d won the Nobel Prize in Chem­istry. It took a few moments to sink in, but when it did, Ernst said, “Then of course I started to explode. I was in an excited state.”

Clearly his early days as a silent explorer gave way to a bril­liant researcher. The fact that mag­netic res­o­nance now allows us to “see inside vir­tu­ally every­thing in nature, from mol­e­cules to human heads,” as he put it, is due in no small part to Ernst’s youthful creativity.