Ernst was born in Groningen, the Netherlands in 1913 and, at the time of this interview, was 94 years old. His father, Isidore, was a world-famous physician. All of Ernst’s immediate family, except for his elder brother Frits, left the Netherlands prior to World War II. His mother and father moved to Beijing (Peking), China where his father was Chief of Medicine at Peking Union Medical College (at the time a Rockefeller Institute-supported institution). After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese, who were already in Beijing, made his parents prisoners of war. They ultimately came to the US on a prisoner of war exchange. Ernst’s parents lived in New York City at The Barbizon Plaza Hotel in ‘beautiful quarters on the top floor,’ while Ernst’s father worked in medicine at The Rockefeller Institute and at Mt. Sinai Hospital.
Ernst had studied mathematics first at the University of Amsterdam. At the time, the best theoretical mathematicians in the world were at Princeton. Ernst came to Princeton in the late 1930s and obtained his PhD there in 1941, writing his thesis on The Structure of Linear Sets. Not only did Princeton have outstanding mathematicians, but they also had outstanding physicists. Both during the war years and when Ernst returned to Princeton in the early 1950s, Albert Einstein was at the Institute for Advanced Study. Though most of his career was devoted to theoretical mathematics (USC, Harvard, UCLA, Princeton, Miami of Ohio, University of Indiana, and Dartmouth), a decade ago Ernst changed his main research interests to special and general relativity.
Ernst and his wife, Ethel, moved to the Upper Valley in 1963. They lived next to the White Church in Hanover before moving to Main Street, Norwich in the 1970’s. Ethel and Ernst raised two sons: Jim, who is a doctor, and Jack who is a philosopher. Ethel died about 7 years ago. Jim is married to Joyce Tenney, the eldest daughter of Marsh Tenney, who was the greatly respectly ex-Dean of Dartmouth Medical School. Ernst has two granddaughters, Emily and Sophie.
Ernst lists his current interests as daily walks to beyond the post office and then back home, and his ongoing study of special and general relativity and the physical theories that go along with it. His main hobby continues to be his study of physics.