Francis William Aston

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Harborne, Birmingham
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Harborne, Birmingham

Francis William Aston was a scientist from the United Kingdom who lived in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1922. Though he was originally schooled as a chemist, he grew interested in physics and began his career at the University of Birmingham as an associate of well-known physicist John Henry Poynting. Later, he moved to Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory to work with J. J. Thompson. He had an inclination when working with neon gas at Cavendish Laboratory that it could have two isotopes. However, World Military I broke out before he could further investigate it, and he was posted to war duty at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough. After the war, he resumed his research. He created the’mass spectrograph,’ a positive-ray apparatus that allowed him to identify two distinct isotopes of neon for the first time. He then began experimenting with different gases, discovering a total of 212 naturally occurring isotopes! He excelled at tennis and golf in addition to science. He enjoyed traveling most of all and could play a variety of musical instruments. He was a man of many talents, to be sure.

Childhood and Adolescence

Francis William Aston was born in Harborne, Birmingham, England, on September 1, 1877. His father, William Aston, ran a small farm that specialized in metal goods. Fanny Charlotte Hollis was his mother’s name. He was the third of seven children born to his parents.

Francis attended Harborne Vicarage School for his early education. Later, he was accepted into Malvern College, a residential institution in Worcestershire, where he spent two years studying. He first became interested in science at Malvern College, where he exhibited exceptional abilities in physics, chemistry, and maths.

He enrolled at Mason College in Birmingham in 1893.
He majored in physics and chemistry under John Henry Poynting and Percy F. Frankland and William A. Tilden, respectively. In 1896, he received his diploma.

Following that, Aston established a private laboratory at his father’s home and began researching organic chemistry. He won the Forster Scholarship two years later, in 1998, and began working on the optical properties of tartaric acid derivatives under Frankland. Three years later, in 1901, a paper on this subject was released.

Meanwhile, Aston left academia in 1900 to work as a fermentation scientist at W. Butler & Company Brewery in Wolverhampton due to financial constraints. However, after the X-ray was discovered, he became interested in physics.

Aston’s career progressed to the point where he began building a new sort of pump for evacuating vessels and became interested in its gas discharge. He obtained another scholarship in 1903 and returned to Mason College, which had become part of the University of Birmingham. He started working as a Poynting associate now.

Here Aston began investigating the features of Crookes Dark Region, which refers to the dark space found between the cathode light and the negative glow in a vacuum tube, by passing electric current through a gas filled tube.

Soon after, he found a new phenomenon dubbed ‘Aston’s Dark Space.’ Between the cathode surface and the cathode glow, there is a dark area. He discovered that the radiated electrons are unable to ionize the gas in this area due to insufficient velocity, resulting in the dark spot.

In 1908, his father died, leaving him a sizable income. He then went on a round-the-world trip before returning to the University of Birmingham in early 1909 to take up a lectureship.

J. J. Thompson, who had already been credited with the discovery of electrons, invited Aston to work as his assistant at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge near the end of 1909. He enthusiastically accepted the position because it would allow him to dedicate more time to research.

He then turned his attention to positive rays produced in electric discharge tubes at low pressure. Thompson had already devised a mechanism for calculating atomic weights at the time. It involved the use of electro-magnetic fields to create curves on a photographic plate.

Aston discovered two unique curves when testing with neon gas, indicating that the gas contains two similar atoms with differing masses. He wasn’t sure if he’d discovered two separate isotopes, though. For the time being, he believed he had discovered a new element, which he dubbed’meta-neon.’

World War I broke out before he could develop any further, and Aston was assigned to the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough. During the war, he worked on the effects of the atmosphere on airplane synthetic coatings.

Aston returned to Cavendish Laboratory in 1919. He built a positive-ray instrument that he dubbed the’mass spectrograph.’ He now uses it to distinguish between two neon isotopes. It earned him a lot of respect. He eventually discovered isotopes of additional stable elements, such as hydrogen and chlorine, by continuing in this path.

He then used this information to develop his ‘Whole Number Rule.’ “With the mass of the oxygen isotope determined, all the other isotopes have masses that are extremely close to whole numbers,” he asserted. Later in the creation of atomic energy, the rule was used.

He worked on many elements of chemistry until his death, and he lived at Trinity College. He proposed a theory on subatomic energy and its use in 1936. He never accepted a teaching position because he desired to dedicate his entire time to study.

Major Projects of Francis William Aston

His first important project was the creation of the original mass spectrograph. To induce opposite deflections in the same plane, the equipment used electrostatic and magnetic fields. A sequence of lines could be generated by focussing photons through minute slits. Each one of these lines represented a specific particle mass.

He examined fifty various sorts of elements using his mass spectrograph, which he continued to improve, and discovered 212 naturally occurring isotopes out of the 287 that had previously been detected. This is, without a doubt, his most significant work.

He also wrote two books in addition to several papers. His first work, ‘Isotopes,’ was reissued as ‘Mass Spectra and Isotopes,’ in 1922. (1941). Another notable work of his is ‘Structural Units of the Material Universe,’ published in 1923.

Achievements & Awards

Francis William Aston won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1922 “for his discovery of isotopes in a large number of non-radioactive elements, as well as for his enunciation of the whole-number rule.”

The Royal Society of London awarded Aston the Hughes Medal in 1922 “for his discovery of isotopes of a large number of elements through the method of positive rays.”

He was awarded the Royal Medal by the same organization in 1938 “for his discovery of non-radioactive element isotopes.”
He also received the Röntgen Society’s Mackenzie Davidson Medal in 1920, the John Scott and Paterno Medals in 1923, and the Physical Society’s Duddell Medal in 1944.

In 1920, Aston was elected a Trinity College fellow. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society the following year. He became a member of the International Committee on Atomic Weights in 1921. He was also a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences as an honorary member.

Personal History and Legacy

Francis William Aston lived a socially engaged life despite being a lifelong bachelor. He was an avid golfer who formed a famous foursome with Ernest Rutherford, Ralph Fowler, and G.I. Taylor. His main pastimes were swimming and tennis, and he won numerous tennis events.

He also enjoyed a variety of adventure sports such as skiing, skating, rock climbing, and surfing. He did, however, cease skiing in 193 after developing a heart issue.

He loved to travel and would frequently embark on a cycling tour. He also enjoyed music and could play the piano, cello, and violin.
Aston died on November 20, 1945, in Cambridge, where he had lived for the previous twenty-five years. He was 68 years old at the time.

Estimated Net Worth

Estimated net Worth of Francis William Aston is unknown.


Aston is the name of a 43-kilometer-diameter lunar impact crater named for him. It may be found at 35.1° N 87.8° W on the Moon’s northwest limb.

In his honor, the British Mass Spectrometry Society established the ‘Aston Award.’ Anyone who has worked in the United Kingdom and produced an extraordinary contribution in fields directly relevant to mass spectrometry is eligible for the medal.

Aston was an avid traveler who often combined his scientific work with his leisure time. He would frequently go to various places of the globe to see solar eclipses. He once rode over 200 kilometres in a single day. While on vacation in Honolulu, he learnt to surf.