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Richard Ernst: Public More Critical of Nobel Prize Winners

Professor Richard Ernst won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1991 for his work in core magnetic resonance. He spoke to DW about his plans for improving the planet and his passion for Tibetan art and culture.

Richard Ernst, winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Chemistry

The Swiss chemist spends much of his time these days giving presentations

Deutsche Welle: What are the main global challenges mankind faces at the moment?

Richard Ernst: I think they are maintaining the environmental and living conditions so that future generations will also have the opportunity to service and shape a life like the one we are used to.

How do you want to achieve this?

We need to make people aware of what they are actually doing. And we need to look ahead to the future and think about how what we do will affect it.

Can the world still be saved?

I think so. But, above all, we must not cling passively to this illusion. We need this for the future. Of course everything that we do is dissipative and we can't undo what we've already done. We create terminal disturbances in the system and we need to minimize these.

How are you personally trying to improve the world?

Firstly, I give a lot of presentations. I, personally, lead a simple life and try to minimize my needs as much as I can. In other countries, including developing countries, I try to have an effect my motivating people. I am still a university professor, and I try to convince young people about the right path to take.

Are there any other disciplines in which you would like to conduct research?

I have a second passion to fall back on and that's Asian art. I'm also interested in Tibet and Tibetan paintings in particular. So I have plenty of interests along the lines of cultural anthropology. And the entire history of central Asia, for example, which is extremely complicated and extremely interesting. I find it fascinating to try and understand a foreign culture.

Which subject did you dislike in school?

Languages. As a small boy, I didn't speak any language at all. And my parents thought that maybe I wasn't too bright. I developed my own language that nobody other than my sister understood. She was my translator and she translated what I said for my parents. This language was made up of words I invented that nobody else used.

Where were you and what were you doing when you heard about your Nobel Prize in 1991?

That was really exciting. I was on an airplane flying from Moscow to New York. I was going to New York to receive another prize, the Horwitz Prize at Columbia University, and then the captain came to me and asked, "Are you Mr. Ernst?" I said, "Yes, what can I do for you?" He said, "You've just won a prize." And then he told me it was the Nobel Prize -- that was a huge surprise.

And how have you personally benefited from the Nobel Prize since then?

At the beginning, it brought me a lot of duties, in particular over the course of my research and teaching work, which I continued for seven years after winning the prize. After my becoming a professor emeritus, it gave me first and foremost my voice. I can now appear at various universities, congresses and private circles and have a voice there. People listen to me. And the people expect a scientific lecture from me and are then very disappointed that they get preached to about morals. I try to capitalize on that.

If the past, you've mentioned the negative effects winning such a prize can have. What are the aspects of being a Nobel winner that a normal person might not be able to imagine?

People are more critical of you. Of course they pay attention to you more, but at the same time they are more critical. For example, I've noticed that it is more difficult to publish a paper with the Nobel Prize in my pocket, because now the people really read the paper -- and they try to find a mistake. It's a great pleasure to find a mistake in the work of a Nobel Prize winner. Nobody would be looking for this with a normal person.

What did you do with the prize money?

It went towards various things. A portion for my own research, a portion for charitable organizations, a portion supports my research and collection in the Asian filed. It actually went towards various goals.

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