Transcript from an interview with Professor Richard R. Ernst, 1991 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, on 8 December 2001. Interviewer is Joanna Rose, science writer.
Dr Richard Ernst, welcome to this Nobel interview. You come from Zurich and from the very famous school there, University ETH where also Albert Einstein have studied for about 100 years ago. But today you are very critical to the way the university function in the society. What are the major drawbacks in the university system?
Richard Ernst: I was just two days ago giving a lecture in Luleå in the north of Sweden and I was showing a transparency of the gentleman you just mentioned, Einstein, and he said it’s one of the greatest miracles of mankind that after 20 years sitting in a school bench one still can maintain some creativity, and I think that’s indeed one of the problems that we try just to listen and to accumulate knowledge without doing anything and some of the students, and also the professors, have lost contact with reality. I mean I might express it in a little bit too extreme way, but I think it’s a tendency and we should try to get more into contact with reality.
What do you mean by contact with reality?
Richard Ernst: There are different aspects. First of all, I mean there’s the necessities of life so that we all end our research projects to what really mankind is needing the relation between North and South between the super-rich and the super-poor. That’s one aspect and the other aspect is that we also try to develop more responsibility for what is going on in the world. In the moment the world is so to say governed by politicians and by industry and both they have urgent problems to solve.
Today to survive for tomorrow and I think we need somebody who is looking more into the future on long term and I mean we have been granted freedom to do essentially what we want but whoever has acquired freedom he also has to accept responsibility. So we have essentially to do what is needed to be done and this is long range planning. Long range planning on a global scale that we really try to develop new concepts. How can we safely survive also in the future?
So you mean this would be a task for a community of scientists all over the world?
Richard Ernst: Yes, exactly, that’s true. Not a single individual can do that. We don’t need specialists for that. Political science of course it’s important of futurology or whatever you’d like to call it that’s fine to have a few specialists but I think everybody should be concerned and one needs to collaborate and work together in order to develop new concepts and it means essentially that we have to work as a scientist on two levels. First of all we have to do our detailed work, we have to concentrate on our details and go as deep as we can into the ground, deep and deep to the foundations so that we have solid foundations to build our future on. But on the other side we should also work on an upper level and develop bits and foresight and have global views for what is going on in the world. So these two levels they should essentially work side by side.
Why do you think that scientists can be, what do I say, better moral leaders in the world than other people?
Richard Ernst: I mean they are not … but again what I said before, politicians for example they are so much in their business and they can’t afford, I mean they have to survive personally in the next election for example and business people they have profits and the shareholder value is so important that they can’t have this long term vision so I mean universities are essentially left for taking such a job. Of course we are not particularly well suited for it perhaps because we are so specialists and have been trained as specialists but still I think we are those who should develop these ideas and especially because we are actually training the leaders of the future.
So you mean this obligation is because scientists are teachers?
Richard Ernst: Yes exactly.
So it’s in education.
Richard Ernst: Yes, teaching and research is always connected in most countries and the separation of the two I don’t think it’s good.
What do other people, your colleague scientists, say when you tell them that you have to take more responsibility for the long term thinking in the world?
Richard Ernst: Yes, yes I mean they say it’s nice talking it’s easier to talk about it than to do it but that’s, I ‘m aware of that and they don’t completely disagree, but they try to ignore it.
People are busy with the science.
Richard Ernst: Yes, they are very busy. They say how can we take on more responsibility when we are already completely saturated with tasks.
What about students? Are they broad minded?
Richard Ernst: That’s true, the students, if I talk like that in front of an audience than the students that would come to me and say “Oh that’s great and we thank you for these ideas” I mean that’s exactly how we feel. So the students they are very motivated for that. The professors they just see their own limits. But the students they would like to get more involved in that. You see it’s so difficult today to motivate young students to go into the sciences. Chemistry in particular. We don’t have enough chemistry students but I mean if one would combine the detailed science with the broader view I think we could also motivate bright young students with the broad mind to study natural sciences again.
Why do you think that young students and people don’t go into sciences today?
Richard Ernst: I think one reason is that it’s become so specialised and so detached from the human interests. I mean if you are married it’s so difficult even to tell your wife what you’re doing and she might not care and might not understand and doesn’t want to understand. So I mean you need something in common with other people as well to be part of a community otherwise if you are just a group of specialists, of course I have friends everywhere in the world in different cities who understand me and who understand my language. But I mean you need also people like that in your immediate environment.
If we come back to the research that you have done, you have developed an instrument NMR spectroscopy that is used broadly by both chemists and biologists. Did you have any idea that this apparatus would work in this way?
Richard Ernst: Not really. At the beginning I didn’t see the power of it but I mean it was always my goal. It was my goal to develop something which could be used afterwards and in essence I’m not really what one would imagine to be a scientist who wants to understand the world. To understand how the basic principles of a human being, I was more interested in really designing tools. So I’m a toolmaker and not really a scientist in this sense and I wanted to provide other people these capabilities of solving problems.
Was this the motivation for you to go into the university and study chemistry to be useful for the society?
Richard Ernst: Not really. I mean initially I once discovered in our old house a box of chemicals when I was 13 and I started to play with this box of chemicals and I survived and our house survived and so I became very interested in this phenomena, this strange phenomena of chemistry and at that time I really wanted to gain understanding. So at that time I had more scientific motivation. And for this reason I went into chemistry but later on I developed more in that direction of a toolmaker.
Yes, and you have also an interest in art but it’s a very special kind of art especially.
Richard Ernst: Yes.
What is it?
Richard Ernst: That’s Tibetan art, shall I show you a picture?
Richard Ernst: I think in general the combination of science and art is a unique and important one. I mean there often one says that somebody who doesn’t grow up and maintains some of his useful attitudes he either becomes a scientist or in the best case an artist. I mean these other people who have to be in some way naïve and ask simple questions and think differently than the rest of mankind and so I think it’s a natural combination – science and art. Initially it was mostly music which I was interested in and then later on I developed an interest for the painting arts and by accident I got into contact with this Tibetan art world.
These very beautiful paintings are being done which I’m fascinated of which have … I mean first of all it’s very high art, perfectly done and secondly it expresses a philosophy, a very strange philosophy for me, but I mean, if you go into it and study it in more detail, you see how fascinating this kind of philosophies is to this philosophy actually is and how much it can give us Western people and so I gained a lot from that. And I think there was cross talk between what I’m doing during the day and what I could look at at home in the evening. I think it was important for me to have these two sides available.
I’m afraid our time is out so thank you for taking your time for this interview. Thank you very much.
Richard Ernst: Thank you for the interview.
Interview with Professor Richard R. Ernst by Joanna Rose, science writer, 8 December 2001.
Professor Ernst talks about the problem of universities having little contact with reality; how scientists should take more responsibility for long-term visions (4:13); how to motivate students to study science (6:19); his ideas about spectroscopy (8:02); and his great interest in Tibetan art (9:52).
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