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Francis William Aston (1 September 1877 – 20 November 1945) was a British chemist and physicist who won the 1922 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for his discovery, by means of his mass spectrograph, of isotopes, in a large number of non-radioactive elements, and for his enunciation of the whole-number rule."

Early life

Francis Aston was born in Harborne, now part of Greater Birmingham, on 1 September 1877. He was the third child and second son of William Aston and Fanny Charlotte Hollis. He was educated at the Harborne Vicarage School and later Malvern Collegemarker in Worcestershire where he was a boarder. In 1893 Francis William Aston began his university studies at Mason College (later part of the University of Birminghammarker) where he was taught physics by John Henry Poynting and chemistry by Frankland and Tilden. From 1896 on he conducted additional research on organic chemistry in a private laboratory at his father’s house. In 1898 he started as a student of Frankland financed by a Forster Scholarship; his work concerned optical properties of tartaric acid compounds. He started to work on fermentation chemistry at the school of brewing in Birmingham and was employed by W. Butler & Co. Brewery in 1900. This period of employment ended in 1903 when he returned to the University of Birmingham under Poynting as an Associate.


With a scholarship from the University of Birminghammarker he pursued research in physics following the discovery of X-rays and radioactivity in the mid-1890s. Aston studied the current through an electronic discharge tube (a gas-filled tube with electrodes under high vacuum). The research, conducted with self-made discharge tubes, led him to investigate the volume of the Crookes dark space now known as Aston dark space.

After the death of his father, and a trip around the world in 1908, he was appointed lecturer at the University of Birmingham in 1909 but moved to the Cavendish Laboratorymarker in Cambridgemarker on the invitation of J. J. Thomson in 1910.

Joseph John Thomson revealed the nature of the cathode ray and then discovered the electron and he was now doing research on the positively charged "Kanalstrahlen" discovered by Eugen Goldstein in 1886. The method of deflecting particles in the "Kanalstrahlen" by magnetic fields, discovered by Wilhelm Wien in 1908, and electric fields were used to separate the different ions by their charge and mass. The first sector field mass spectrometer was the result of these experiments. The ions followed a parabolic flight path and were recorded on photographic plates from which their exact mass could be determined by the mass spectrometer.

It was speculations about isotopy that directly gave rise to the building of a mass spectrometer capable of separating the isotopes of the chemical elements. Aston initially worked on the identification of isotopes of the element neon and later chlorine and mercury. First World War stalled and delayed his research on providing experimental proof for the existence of isotopes by mass spectroscopy and during the war Aston worked at the Royal Airforce Establishment in Farnborough as a Technical Assistant working on aeronautical coatings.

After the war he returned to research at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, and completed building his first mass spectrograph (now mass spectrometer) that he reported on 1919. Subsequent improvements in the instrument led to the development of a second and third instrument of improved mass resolving power and mass accuracy. These instruments employing electromagnetic focusing allowed him to identify 212 naturally occurring isotopes. In 1921, Aston became a fellow of the Royal Society and received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry the following year.

His work on isotopes also led to his formulation of the Whole Number Rule which states that "the mass of the oxygen isotope being defined [as 16], all the other isotopes have masses that are very nearly whole numbers," a rule that was used extensively in the development of nuclear energy. The exact mass of many isotopes was measured leading to the result that hydrogen has a 1% higher mass than expected by the average mass of the other elements. Aston speculated about the subatomic energy and the use of it in 1936.

Isotopes and Mass-spectra and Isotopes are his most well-known books.

Private life

In his private life he was a sportsman, cross-country skiing and skating in winter time, during his regular visits to Switzerlandmarker and Norwaymarker; deprived of these winter sports during the First World War he started climbing. Between the ages of 20 and 25 he spent a large part of his spare time cycling. With the invention of motorized vehicles he constructed a combustion engine of his own in 1902 and participated in the Gordon Bennett Race in Ireland in 1903. Not content with these sports he also engaged in swimming, golf, especially with Rutherford and other colleagues in Cambridge, tennis, winning some prizes at open tournaments in Englandmarker Walesmarker and Irelandmarker and learning surfing in Honululumarker in 1909. Coming from a musical family, he was capable of playing the piano, violin and cello at a level such that he regularly played in concerts at Cambridge. He visited many places around the globe on extensive travel tours starting from 1908 when he visited and ending with a trip to Australia and New Zealandmarker in 1938-1939.

Aston was a skilled photographer and interested in astronomy. He joined several expeditions to study solar eclipses in Benkoeben in 1925, Sumatramarker in 1932, Memphri in Canadamarker in 1936 and Kamishri in Japanmarker. He also planned to attend expeditions to South Africa in 1940 and Brazilmarker in 1945 in later life. Aston died in Cambridge on 20 November 1945.

The lunar crater Astonmarker was named in his honour.


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