The Royal Swedish Academy yesterday awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Richard R. Ernst of Switzerland and the Nobel Prize in Physics to Pierre-Gilles de Gennes of France.
De Gennes, 58, was honored for describing similarities in the behavior of molecules in a number of solids, ranging from superconductors to the liquid crystals used in pocket calculators and wristwatch displays.
Announcing its decision from Stockholm, Sweden, the Academy described de Gennes as "the Isaac Newton of our time."
"Some of the systems de Gennes has treated have been so complicated that few physicists had earlier thought it possible to incorporate them at all in a general physical description," the Academy said.
Harvard physicists interviewed yesterday also applauded de Genne's achievements.
"I think he is an excellent choice," said Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics Roy J. Glauber '45. "He stands out among other physicists because of his committment to expanding applications of existing analysis to previously obscure problems."
De Gennes's mathematical descriptions of crystals and polymers expanded these applications, according to Glauber.
De Gennes, who teaches at the College de France in Paris, said he was pleased to win the $1 million prize on behalf of the prestigious School of Physics and Chemistry, which he has directed since 1976.
Award for Chemistry
Ernst, 58, was flying from Moscow to New York to receive the Columbia University Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize for outstanding research in biochemistry when he was informed of the Academy's decision.
In its announcement, the Academy cited Ernst's contributions to the development of high-resolution nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.
NMR spectroscopy is a means of determining the structure of molecules in solutions and investigating their motion. It has, according to Baird Professor of Science Dudley R. Herschbach, "become a standard instrumental measuring tool within chemistry, thanks to Ernst's developments."
Herschbach, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1986, also noted that early developments in the field were an outgrowth of radar reseach at Harvard and MIT during World War II under the direction of two noted Harvard scientists.
Researchers at the Harvard NMR Lab were not surprised by the Academy's choice.
"I expected him to receive the prize many years ago," said Shaw G. Huang, who serves as the lab's managing director. "In 1965, he became the first person to demonstrate that the Fourier Transformation of NMR could be achieved. Ever since, many of the applications in biological systems have been based on his principles."
Ernst, who was a visiting professor at Harvard in 1988, has worked at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich since 1962 and at the Eidgenoessische Technical High School.