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A French physicist who devised a theory explaining the behavior of molecules in many different substances and a Swiss chemist who invented one of the most important analytical techniques in chemistry were awarded the Nobel Prizes in their fields Wednesday.

Pierre-Gilles de Gennes of France, 58, won for finding underlying similarities in the behavior of molecules in a wide range of solid materials, from superconductors to the liquid crystals used in pocket calculators and wristwatch displays, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in awarding him the $1 million Nobel Prize in physics."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. Some of the academy's judges called him "the Isaac Newton of our time."

Richard R. Ernst of Switzerland, 58, won the $1 million Nobel Prize in chemistry for his contributions to the development of high-resolution nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

The academy said nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy has become one of the most important analytic techniques in chemistry in the past 20 years. It did so because of dramatic increases in the sensitivity of the technique, made possible by Ernst's contributions, the academy said.

A spokesman for the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich said Ernst was on a plane from Moscow to New York Wednesday and had not been told he won the prize. Ernst has been professor of physical chemistry at the Eidgenoessische Technical High School in Zurich since 1976.

De Gennes' mathematical descriptions of crystals and long, chain-like molecules referred to as polymers have broad applications, the academy said.

De Gennes of the College de France in Paris "has opened new fields in physics and stimulated a great deal of theoretical and experimental work in these fields," the academy said. "While this is pure research, it has also meant the laying of a more solid foundation for the technical exploitation of the materials . . . liquid crystals and polymers."

De Gennes (his full name is pronounced pee-EHR-zheel duh zhehn) said he was pleased to win the prize on behalf of the prestigious School of Physics and Chemistry in Paris, which he has directed since 1976. He has had to struggle to retain adequate public funding for the school. "The prize will give me arguments to defend my school," he said.

While much of his research has been theoretical, it was done with an eye toward applications, De Gennes said. "All of my research, however fundamental, is always motivated by practicality," he said. As an example, he mentioned his recent work in the development of "super glues" strong enough to be used to assemble airplanes.

Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy provides a means of determining the structure of molecules in solutions and of investigating the motion of molecules. It is "perhaps the most important instrumental measuring technique within chemistry," and it is also useful in physics, biology and medicine, the academy said.

Nuclear magnetic resonance images of the body are used as a diagnostic tool in medicine. The technique has also provided experimental verification of the principles of the quantum theory of physics, one of the most important physical theories of the 20th century, the academy said.