Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922

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Lot 112
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922

£ 200,000 - 400,000
US$ 280,000 - 550,000
NOBEL PRIZE
The Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922, medal for chemistry, struck in 23 carat gold, approximately 200g., 67mm. in diameter, designed by Erik Lindberg and manufactured by the Kungliga Mynt och Justeringsverkey (Swedish Royal Mint); the obverse with bust of Alfred Nobel facing left, "ALFR. / NOBEL" to left of bust, "NAT. / MDCCC / XXXIII / OB. / MDCCC / XCVI" to right of bust, signed "E. LINDBERG" at the lower left edge; the reverse featuring allegorical vignette of Science unveiling the face of Nature, legend above vignette reading "INVENTAS VITAM IUVAT EXCOLUISSE PER ARTES", plaque below vignette reading "F.W. ASTON / MCMXXII", motto to either side of plaque reading "REG. ACAD. SCIENT. SUEC."; signed "E. LINDBERG" to lower right of vignette. Housed in the original diced maroon morocco case, decorated in gilt and lined in velvet and satin.

WITH:
(i) Nobel Prize Diploma, 2 vellum leaves (each 341 x 242mm.) with calligraphic inscriptions in Swedish in orange and blue, giving Francis William Aston's citation dated 10 December 1922 on second leaf, second leaf signed by the President and Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, both leaves with decorative cartouches in green, blue, and gilt by artist-calligrapher Sofia Gisberg. Both leaves mounted as linings in original mottled calf portfolio ruled in gilt (363 x 266mm.), upper cover with central wreath device encircling cipher of Aston's initials. Extremities slightly rubbed. Preserved in solander box.

(ii) 8 further medals awarded to Aston: Davidson (Röntgen Society, 1920); Hughes (Royal Society, 1922), and related letter; John Scott (City of Philadelphia, 1923); Alessandro Volta (1927); Accademia dei Lincei (1927); Aloysius Galvanus (1937); Georges Urbain (1938); citation for the Royal Society's Royal Medal, 1938, and related letter; Duddell (Physical Society, 1944), and related letter.

(iii) 2 offprints of important articles by Aston, comprising: 'Experiments on the Length of the Cathode Dark Space with Varying Current Densities and Pressures in Different Gases' (from The Proceedings of the Royal Society, A, vol. 79, 1907), being Aston's first independent published contribution to physics; 'Experiments on a New Cathode Dark Space in Helium and Hydrogen' (ibid., vol. 80, 1907), inscribed "With the author's compliments".

(iv) Various other documents, by Aston except where otherwise mentioned, comprising: notebook containing Aston's transcribed notes from Prof. Percy F. Frankland's lectures on Organic Chemistry at Mason College, 1906-7, "List of Gramophone Records" purchased between 1923-29, and occasional diary covering 1890-1945; 4 autograph manuscript short stories, and one typed short story, all signed, 2 dated 1903 and 1907; Post-Prandial Proceedings of the Cavendish Society, 3 editions, being 1911, 1920 and 1926, the last including the song 'Isotopes', and loosely inserted the unidentified author's manuscript of the same inscribed "With the author's compliments"; telegram received by Aston's family in Birmingham, 10 November 1922, reading in full "Have got nowel [sic] prize for chemistry 1922 Frank"; breathless typed account of the Nobel trip by his sister Helen, seating plan for the dinner, and menu for the same signed by Niels Bohr and others; 2 copies of an obituary of Aston by G. Hevesy, one being an annotated proof, and typed bibliography of Aston's publications incorporated into the same; death certificate.

(v) Photographs: 3 platinum print portraits by Elliott & Fry; platinum print portrait by Hills & Saunders of Cambridge; Aston with Japanese academics, gelatin silver print; Aston, Rutherford and others below an arch, gelatin silver print.

(vi) 8 autograph letters signed ("Frank"), mostly to his sister Helen and mother Fanny, Honolulu, Edinburgh and Cambridge, 1909-1922; letters received from J.J. Thomson (Cambridge, 9 December 1909, offering him a position as research assistant, with Aston's draft reply), his mother, and Charles Galton Darwin (Pasadena, 13 November 1922, congratulating him on the Nobel).

Footnotes

  • "THE RESULTS ARE MARVELLOUS PAST ALL WHOOPING; OLD & RESPECTED ATOMS LIKE CHLORINE AND MERCURY HAVE FALLEN TO PIECES INTO A SHOWER OF ISOTOPES" — THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR DISCOVERING ISOTOPES IN NON-RADIOACTIVE ELEMENTS, of which Aston identified 212 of the 281 we know today. The Committee's official recognition was "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."

    In the presentation speech, Prof. H.G. Söderbaum described Aston's work as "of fundamental importance for the whole of chemical science." Today, the measurement of isotopes and the use of mass spectrometry are integral to areas of science as diverse as medicine, forensics, archaeology, sports science, climate change, and space exploration. It was Aston's whole number rule, and particularly his later work on deviations from it, that laid the groundwork for both the atom bomb and nuclear power. As the Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest wrote to Albert Einstein when news of the discoveries broke, "NOW THE ERA OF NUCLEAR SPECULATION BEGINS."

    The Prelude to Aston's Discoveries

    The existence of isotopes was first suggested in 1913 by the radiochemist Frederick Soddy. His work on radioactivity identified 40 different species that he described as "radio-elements" (i.e. radioactive elements) between uranium and lead, where the periodic table only allowed for 11 elements. These variants were isotopes: atoms of an element with the normal number of protons and electrons, but different numbers of neutrons. Isotopes have the same atomic number, i.e. the same number of protons and the same total positive charge, but different mass owing to the varying number of neutrons. (Neutrons themselves were not discovered until the early 1930s, by James Chadwick.) Soddy came up with the term isotope from the Greek roots isos and topos, meaning "the same place"; as the name implies, different isotopes of a single element occupy the same position on the periodic table.

    Around the same time that Soddy identified the concept of isotopes, J.J. Thomson was working in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge on analyzing positive rays, with the help of his research assistant Francis Aston whom he had hired in 1910. Born in 1877 in Harborne, near Birmingham, Aston had attended Malvern College, and in 1893 entered Mason College, Birmingham, to study for the London intermediate science examination. He had a makeshift laboratory of his own, and for a time worked as a chemist for a Wolverhampton brewery. Working initially on X-ray tubes and gas discharges, in 1907 Aston detected a new 'primary cathode dark space', a phenomenon which now bears his name. Offprints of two of his articles on the subject are included in the present archive.

    At the Cavendish, Thomson had been subjecting positive rays to electric and magnetic deflections, making the particles fall upon a photographic plate in the form of a parabola; thus was the first mass-analysis of the rays achieved. Aston helped Thomson improve his apparatus, but in 1912, to their surprise, they obtained two different parabolas for neon, and concluded that neon is composed of atoms of two different atomic masses (mass 20 and mass 22) – that is to say, of two isotopes. This was the first evidence for isotopes of a stable, non-radioactive, element.

    Aston's First Mass Spectrograph

    Aston began to suspect that natural isotopes of other elements might exist. His work was interrupted by the First World War – which he spent at Farnborough as a technical assistant at the Royal Aircraft Establishment – but he continued to puzzle over the problem and upon his return to the Cavendish began work on a new apparatus. His 'mass spectrograph' was a huge improvement on Thomson's apparatus. Rather than producing a parabola effect, the two fields now caused deflections of the rays to occur in the same plane, with the deflection of the ions proportional to their charge to mass ratio. Aston was able to produce separate beams of individual isotopes and record their positions on a strip of photographic film, as a series of lines: the mass spectrum.

    His machine perfected, Aston turned his focus on other elements such as chlorine and mercury, and the results were almost immediate. To his sister, on 1 December 1919, he announced excitedly:
    my apparatus has fairly put its foot through the atomic weights. The results are marvellous past all whooping[:] old & respected atoms like chlorine and mercury have fallen to pieces into a shower of isotopes during last week alone I got indication of about 5 new elements (isotopes of course) goodness knows how the chemists will like it, and at the back of it all is a most delightful simplicity & order instead of the previous chaotic fractional values it is one of the biggest things for years.
    (Letter in the present archive)

    The same month, he wrote to his fellow scientist Frederick Lindemann "I have been living in a state of wild excitement.... By next week I hope Nature will publish a letter in which I announce the mixed isotopic nature of Cl and Hg and most important of all the fact that every single mass yet measured with certainty falls exactly on a whole number" (Cherwell papers, Nuffield College, Oxford).

    Aston discovered that the atomic weight of neon, 20.2u, was the result of its isotopes of mass 20 and 22 being present in a ratio of 9:1. As he explained to Lindemann, when he examined isotopes of other elements, the masses of the isotopes were whole-number-multiples of the mass of the oxygen atom. For example, boron has an atomic weight of 10.9, and isotopes of mass 10 and 11 - both whole numbers; lithium a weight of 6.94 and isotopes of mass 6 and 7 - similarly whole numbers.

    The scientific world was abuzz with Aston's news. Ehrenfest wrote to Einstein on 20 December 1919:
    Aston (Cambridge) soll jetzt sicher gestellt haben (mit enorm verschärfter Positive-Rays-Methode) dass Neon ein Gemisch von 2 Neons ist (ich glaube 20, 22) und dass 35,5 Chlor absolut nicht besteht sondern nur 34 und 36 Chlor (Zahlen weiss ich nicht sicher!!) – Noch nicht publiciert – nur mündlicher Bericht. Herrlich nicht war? Nun beginnt die Aera der Kern-Speculation.
    (Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, vol. 9, document 224)

    ("Aston will now have verified (with an enormously more accurate Positive-Ray Method) that neon is a mixture of 2 neons (I believe 20, 22) and that 35.5 chlorine absolutely does not exist but only 34 and 36 chlorine (numbers I am not quite sure of!!) – not yet publicly announced – only word of mouth. Glorious, isn't it? Now the era of nuclear-speculation begins.")


    The Nobel Prize

    In February 1920, Aston wrote to his mother "my work is going better than ever.... My apparatus excelled itself giving me 9 new elements in two days – a record for all time I think. These were 5 new isotopes of Krypton & 4 ditto of Xenon. Rutherford is enormously excited but poor old J.J. [Thomson] does not like it at all but there is no getting away from the figures which will revolutionize our views on the constitution of matter" (letter in the present archive).

    Excited scholarly discussion of his discoveries continued, Einstein remarking to two correspondents that Aston's work had been "received with great enthusiasm". Also in 1920 Aston was elected a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. The following year, he joined the Royal Society, and in 1922 received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. In the presentation speech, Professor H.G. Söderbaum described Aston's work as "of fundamental importance for the whole of chemical science", and remarked that the Whole Number Rule "must be regarded as the expression of a natural law of general validity." He invoked ancient Greek philosophers, Renaissance alchemists, and Robert Boyle, all of whom believed in the unitary theory of matter – that all matter is really composed of one primordial substance. Through Aston's Whole Number Rule, continued Söderbaum, "a riddle which for over a hundred years has engaged chemical research has attained its solution, and a surmise which for thousands of years has floated before the human mind has thereby been confirmed."

    In fact, by the time of the Nobel Prize ceremony, Aston had refined his spectrometer to such a degree that he observed and was able to measure deviations from the Whole Number Rule. He had found that "the mass of the oxygen isotope being defined [as 16], all the other isotopes have masses that are very nearly whole numbers" (our emphasis). The nuclear masses were not always what one would expect them to be. Aston realized that 'nuclear forces' must be holding the nucleus together, and perhaps nuclei had to give up some mass when joined together in a nucleus. In his Nobel lecture, he remarked that "we know from Einstein's Theory of Relativity that mass and energy are interchangeable" (this being the principle behind e=mc2). This mass, converted to binding energy, is now known as 'nuclear binding energy'.

    Aston continued:
    we may consider it absolutely certain that if hydrogen is transformed into helium a certain quantity of mass must be annihilated in the process [and therefore energy released]. The cosmical importance of this conclusion is profound and the possibilities it opens for the future very remarkable, greater in fact than any suggested before by science in the whole history of the human race.... Should the research worker of the future discover some means of releasing this energy in a form which could be employed, the human race will have at its command powers beyond the dreams of scientific fiction; but the remote possibility must always be considered that the energy once liberated will be completely uncontrollable and by its intense violence detonate all neighbouring substances. In this event the whole of the hydrogen on the earth might be transformed at once and the success of the experiment published at large to the universe as a new star.
    (Published in Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1922-1941, Amsterdam, 1966)


    Aston's Legacy

    The mass spectrometer "has grown to be the driver of a huge international industry and is utilized as a tool in almost every field of science" (K.S. Sharma, 'Mass Spectrometry - The Early Years', in International Journal of Mass Spectrometry, 349-350 (2013) 3-8). Mass spectrometry is key to carbon dating, forensics, drug testing in sport, managing supply of anaesthetic, finding environmental toxins in food and water supplies, measuring airborne particles, monitoring climate change, and locating oil deposits, and has even confirmed the presence of water ice on Mars. The invention of the mass spectrometer "ranks among the most important scientific inventions of the twentieth century" (M. Wolfsberg, W.A. Van Hook, P. Paneth, L.P.N. Rebelo, Isotope Effects, 2010, p.23).

    "Sub-atomic energy", Aston declared in 1936, "is available all around us, and... one day man will release and control its almost infinite power. We cannot prevent him from doing so and can only hope he will not use it exclusively in blowing up his next door neighbour." Ironically, it was his work that ultimately made it possible to predict the energies involved in nuclear reactions – enabling both the atom bomb and nuclear power. Indeed, Aston would live to see the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945: he died unmarried on 20 November 1945, leaving a large estate to Trinity, the Cavendish, and other scientific organisations. The main repository of Aston's papers is Cambridge University Library, but includes very little from this key period of Aston's research; his letters to Lindemann are at Nuffield College, Oxford.

    The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences recognized Aston's discoveries as "of fundamental importance for the study of nature in general and for chemical science in particular" (Söderbaum's presentation speech). As his obituary in Nature stated, "there is scarcely a research in nuclear physics which does not use his work, directly or indirectly, and usually many times over"; in the 1960s Aston's 1922 book Isotopes was included in Printing and the Mind of Man as item 412. In the history of twentieth century nuclear physics, then, Aston's work is a landmark on a road that leads from Einstein's 1905 mass-energy equivalence e=mc2, past Rutherford "splitting the atom" in the following decade, and onwards to Chadwick identifying the neutron in 1932, and the recent discovery of the Higgs boson.

    Provenance: Francis W. Aston (1877-1945); thence by descent to the present owners.
Contacts
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
Nobel Prize for discovering isotopes in stable elements, awarded to F.W. Aston in 1922
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