Without Passion, Life Becomes Senseless: Prof. Richard Ernst
Interview by Kourosh Ziabari
17 August, 2013
Richard Robert Ernst was born on August 13, 1933 in Winterthur , Switzerland . He lived in a house that his merchant grandfather had built in 1898. His father, Robert Ernst, was an architect and teacher at the city's high school. Winterthur had a small but dexterous orchestra and also an industry in diesel motors and railway engines. The city where Richard was born was a historical city which was founded around 600-700. Foreign nationals from such countries as Germany , Italy , Macedonia , Turkey , Serbia , Austria , Spain , Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina make up the city's population. The town is known for its prominent institute of higher education, Technikum, which is the largest school of technology across Switzerland . This mixture of science and arts in the small city which had a small population of only 102,000 people made Richard immensely interested in music and basic sciences. He played violoncello and made his way into several chamber and church music ensembles.
When he was 13 years old, he found a small carton of chemicals and explosive materials in his attic. The carton belonged to his deceased uncle. He started working and playing with the chemicals and found it an absorbing experience. “"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 about that encounter in his autobiography.
After graduating from high school, he started his university education as an undergraduate student at the famous Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH-Z). Ernst received both his diploma in chemistry (1957) and his Ph.D. in physical chemistry (1962) from ETH Zürich.
Richard Ernst was always enthusiastic about chemistry, and always read the book “Theoretical Chemistry” by author and scientist Samuel Glasstone who wrote more than 40 popular books about physical chemistry, reaction rates and nuclear weapons. The book helped him learn the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, spectroscopy, statistical mechanics and statistical thermodynamics. He worked as a faculty member at the ETH Zurich chemistry department since 1976, and is now retired. Currently, he is a member of the World Knowledge Dialogue Scientific Board. He directed a research group devoted to magnetic resonance spectroscopy, was for some time director of the Laboratory of Physical Chemistry at the ETH Zurich and retired in 1998. In 1991, he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and was awarded the Wolf Prize for Chemistry the same year.
According to the Nobel Committee, Prof. Ernst was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his contributions to the development of the methodology of high resolution nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.”
Prof. Ernst has received several honorary doctorates from universities around the world, including Université de Montpellier, University of Allahabad in India , Charles University , Prague , Toho University , Tokyo and University of Ioannina , Greece .
I had the honor to conduct an exclusive interview with Prof. Ernst and talk to him about his scientific activities and discoveries, his viewpoint and attitude toward the world of science and culture and the future of our world in the light of the advancements technology is experiencing. The Persian translation of this interview was published in Iran 's popular science magazine “Daneshmand” two years ago and its English version is being published on Counter Currents for the first time.
Kourosh Ziabari: Prof. Ernst; let me pose a basic question at the beginning of our interview. What's the responsibility and duty of a chemist? You study and look deep into the structure of molecules, atoms and chemicals. You combine different particles and materials and produce new substances. What are the practical implications of these studies and researches for the public? We, for example, know that one of the advantages of chemistry is that it helps produce medicines for different diseases. It's chemistry that helps the scientists provide remedy for human diseases. How does chemistry contribute to the daily life of the people?
Richard Ernst: Chemistry is a basic natural science with numerous important consequences for our life and for the survival of mankind. For solving and mastering the problems that our future poses, we need to understand the potential, the limits, and the threats of nature. We have gone beyond the limits that nature can stand for warranting sustainability. If we continue to exploit nature as we did so far, our children will suffer from a lack of those resources that they need, and we have thoughtlessly exploited to our personal advantage.
Chemistry reveals to us the inherent limits and it offers us remedies for a more sustainable lifestyle. This is of relevance also to Iran that depends heavily on the exploitation of crude oil. The crude oil resources will not last forever, and we have to find alternative ways of producing energy as well as for minimizing the usage of energy. This is relevant for all countries around the globe, including Iran .
The production of energy in a sustainable manner has much to do with chemistry. Whatever we produce, whatever we create, whatever we dissipate, and irreversibly use has to do with chemical processes. Understanding these processes allows us to find better ways of taking into account the limits and the possibilities of nature. Taking advantage of the everlasting sun energy has much to do with chemistry, with material science and with chemical thermodynamics. Mastering photovoltaic processes, for using sun energy have to do with nanotechnology and with physical chemistry. Please remember that nuclear energy will not be a long-term solution for our energy demands: it is too dangerous in the hands of politicians.
KZ: Do you still live with the enthusiasm and keenness for music? You had taken part in chamber and church music ensembles when you were young. Does music still motivate you? Do you see a connection between science which you've been professionally involved in, and music as you had loved in a young age?
RE: It is important to everybody to have, besides his profession, also passions that inspire and motivate him. Without passions, life becomes boring and even senseless. Music is for me such a passion. I am not a religious person; I do not belong to a particular religious congregation. But music offers to me access to spirituality, to those aspects of life that cannot be understood and comprehended by pure science alone. It is much more for me than just relaxation; it reveals aspects of humane creativity that are of highest value. They are a valuable expression of our cultural heritage. I hope that we will be able to preserve these aspects forever.
KZ: You won the Nobel Prize for your contributions to the development of Fourier Transform nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. It's said that Fourier transform is a mathematical operation which partitions a signal into its constituent frequencies; therefore, the Fourier transform of a musical chord is a mathematical representation of the amplitudes of the individual notes that make t up. Would you please explain more about this discovery and the benefits it has?
RE: Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) is a marvelous tool for understanding natural properties and processes. It is a tool that provides insight into the features of nature. It allows us to explore and to comprehend. It is of major usage in many sciences from material science, to organic and biological chemistry, and to physiology and medicine.
KZ: I would like to know more about the 700-MW magnetic spectrometer which you have developed. What are its outstanding features and in what ways does it differ from the similar existing devices?
RE: I have developed Fourier transform NMR that brought an enormous progress in the practical applicability of NMR. Nevertheless, NMR has great limitations with regards to its sensitivity. It has difficulties to work with minute amounts of substances, and can take a long experiment time for gaining sufficient signal strength. Fourier transform NMR has brought here a unique solution by simultaneously handling all information in the sense of a “multiple-channel spectrometer” where all the information is gathered and processed at the same time. In addition, many new tools of multiple-dimensional spectroscopy became feasible for better taking advantage of the great information content of NMR measurements.
Indeed NMR spectroscopy has indirectly much to do with music. Merely a different frequency range is being used. In music, one takes advantage of acoustical frequencies, while in NMR radio frequencies are being applied. In music, one takes advantage of the sound of musical instruments; in NMR, one observes the resonant phenomena of molecules. A Fourier transform experiment is like hitting on a piano all keys at once and then trying to disentangle the simultaneous sounds being emitted by all strings. Our ear is a nearly perfect Fourier analyzer. In NMR, we need a computer to perform the equivalent Fourier transformation.
KZ: You wrote in your Nobel biography that you were not content with the state of chemistry as it was taught in ETH-Z. What did you expect from an excellent and high-profile university which you couldn't find in EHT-Z which has been home to a number of world renowned scholars and chemists and trained a dozen of Nobel prize laureates?
RE: It is true that in my studies I was disappointed by the status of science and chemistry 50 years ago. Instead of understanding nature, one tried to accumulate and classify facts that had little connectivity. My memory was too weak to remember all these facts, and I depended on a more basic understanding. This is the reason why I went into physical chemistry where understanding is more relevant than just memorizing facts. In certain fields of chemistry, as well as in biology and medicine, comprehensive knowledge of facts is relevant for success; and many famous chemists indeed had and have a stupendous knowledge – but unfortunately not me!
KZ: Why did you leave the university after completing your research and set out to find an industrial job? Weren't you satisfied with the situation of the university or the progress of the students?
RE: I decided to join industry after finishing my studies because I wanted to contribute directly to relevant aspects of society. I had a weak self-confidence in pure science, and I needed a more direct confirmation by society concerning the usefulness of my activities. I sometimes say that those students who cannot be used in industry remain forever at the university! Indeed, the ultimate goal of education at universities aims at becoming a valuable member of society and not an “academic playboy”.
KZ: One of your breakthroughs was the introduction of heteronuclear broadband decoupling by noise irradiation which led to rapid development in carbon-13 spectroscopy? Would you please explain, in simple words, this discovery for us?
RE: Heteronuclear NMR, where several different kinds of nuclei are being taken advantage of, such as hydrogen nuclei, carbon nuclei, nitrogen nuclei, and phosphorus nuclei, became of great usage with the advent of two-dimensional and three-dimensional NMR. Many more possibilities became conveniently accessible by multiple-dimensional NMR. These tools are of great importance for the structure elucidation in organic chemistry and in molecular biology. The more nuclei can be detected simultaneously, the more information can be gained.
KZ: When were you informed that you'd be a Nobel Prize laureate? Who informed you? What was your reaction? I want you to kindly portray a crystal clear image of the Nobel Prize ceremony which you attended and received your award from the Swedish King for me and our readers. How was the feeling of winning the most prestigious scientific award in the world in a prestigious ceremony?
RE: Being informed on receiving the Nobel Prize in chemistry 1991 was completely unexpected. I was flying in a PANAM air plane from Moscow to New York (for receiving the Horwitz Prize at Columbia University) when the captain of the plane was waking me up and told me that I had just won a Nobel prize. I had then to talk from the cockpit of the plane with the committee in Stockholm ; the journalists were asking me what I will do with all the money; and at the same time, my wife Magdalena had to explain on TV in Zürich what NMR can be used for. It was indeed a very well staged surprise for me! – A few weeks later, I had to fly to Stockholm for receiving the prize from the hands of the Swedish king. However, I was more impressed by the handshake with the most beautiful Swedish queen! The events in Stockholm were indeed a most remarkable and unforgettable experience.
KZ: Had you ever worked toward winning a Nobel Prize? I mean, was it ever an objective or aspiration for you to become a Nobel Prize? I want to evoke your mental adjacency with the prize. During your scientific career and while working on the development of modern NMR had you ever thought that you might win the prize one day?
RE: No, I hardly ever thought on wining a Nobel Prize. The chance for this to happen was much too small for providing an incentive for my work. I rather wanted to make a relevant contribution to society that is respected by the broad public. Aiming at a Nobel Prize is the most secure way of becoming unhappy and missing the beauty and the chances of life.
KZ: In what ways does the life of a Nobel Prize laureate differ from the life of other scholars and scientists? How much have you and your life changed since you won the prize two decades ago? Have you ever had the feeling that you've entered a circle which only a few number of people in the world belong to? After all, Nobel Prize is an award which only a small portion of the scholars and scientists receive. Don't you agree?
RE: Initially, after winning the Prize, my life changed very little, I continued to teach, to do research, to sit in many committees, and even to absolve the compulsory military service in Switzerland . After my compulsory retirement in 1998, my life became more affected by the Prize. I had to travel very frequently and to present lectures on numerous subjects. I often say that the Nobel Prize has given me a voice which I can take advantage of to express all my honest thoughts. This is perhaps the most valuable gain from receiving the Prize.
KZ: What's your message for the Iranian readers of this interview? Doyou have something special for the science-loving youths who live across Iran and read our conversation for the Daneshmand magazine? As a university professor, assume that the readers of this interview are your students. What's your advice to them? Share with them a word of wisdom.
RE: Please remember that the students of today will become the responsible leaders of tomorrow. Foresight and responsibility in view of our global future are most important. Remember that the present goals of our egomaniac fun society are unsustainable and have to be drastically changed for warranting a sustainable future where our children also have means left for a happy and prosperous future. In this sense do not blindly copy the hollow recipes of today's leaders and develop your own concepts for a better future. Express your responsible convictions wherever you have a chance and work towards their implementation. Of course, without profound science, the threatening problems cannot be solved; but in addition also a strong ethical foundation is necessary that provides the conviction for your courageous deeds.
Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and media correspondent. He writes for Global Research, CounterCurrents.org, Tehran Times, Iran Review and other publications across the world. His articles and interviews have been translated in 10 languages. His website is http://kouroshziabari.com
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