A Swiss physical chemist who helped advance nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology has won the 1991 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Richard R. Ernst, 58, of the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, improved upon NMR techniques initially developed in 1945. His contributions paved the way for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a biomedical technique for depicting tissues deep within the body.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, which announced the $1 million award last week, calls NMR spectroscopy "perhaps the most important instrumental measuring technique within chemistry."
Basically, nuclear magnetic resonance works because atoms placed in a very strong magnetic field align with the field and behave as though they were spinning tops. The atomic tops wobble at certain frequencies, depending on what other atoms are nearby.
For imaging, scientists or physicians then bombard these atoms with high-frequency radio waves. When the radio waves encounter atoms wobbling at the same frequency as the waves, they cause the atoms to resonate. After the radio waves are turned off, the atoms give …