Francis William Aston

(1877—1945) physicist

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British scientist, who surveyed the periodic table of the elements with his mass spectrograph, which he designed himself and which has since become a standard tool in atomic physics. He was awarded the 1922 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

The son of a metal merchant, Aston studied chemistry at Birmingham University, where he pursued his first research interests before accepting an appointment as works chemist in a Wolverhampton brewery in 1900. Aston returned to research in 1903, when he joined J. H. Poynting (1852–1914) at Birmingham University to work on methods of developing efficient X-ray discharge tubes. In 1910 Aston moved to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, where he remained for the rest of his life, apart from the years of World War I spent at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. In 1919 Aston made accurate measurements of the relative atomic masses of a large number of elements using a mass spectrograph that he had built himself. An improved spectrograph, ready for use in 1927, enabled him to complete a survey of all the known elements by 1935. For this Aston worked alone in a remote corner of the Cavendish.

Aston's work was fundamental to the elucidation of atomic and nuclear structure so successfully carried out at the Cavendish under Rutherford during the inter-war years. He also demonstrated that the existence of the isotopes, first described by Frederick Soddy in 1913, was widespread throughout the periodic table. His measurements achieved a high degree of accuracy and enabled small discrepancies between Prout's integral values of relative atomic masses to be revealed. These differences led Aston very close to the discovery of atomic energy.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.

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