25.6.12

My Gift From a Nobel Prize Winner

Monday, 8 August 1881 - Birmingham, UK

University of Birmingham asked me to look up one of their most famous students: Francis William Aston. He attended Mason College which will merge with Birmingham Medical School to become Birmingham University. Aston went on to graduate from University of Cambridge where he stayed on to do research. There he will improve the mass spectrograph and use it to discover isotopes in a large number of non-radioactive elements. He will also prove William Prout’s hypothesis of the whole number rule which states that the masses of the elements are whole number multiples of the mass of the hydrogen atom. For this he will be awarded the 1922 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

High Street, Harborne and the ominbus from Birmingham
F.W. Aston is currently in the town of Harborne. Once a medieval hamlet, the omnibus and train have turned it into a suburb of nearby Birmingham, which will one day engulf it. At this point though Harborne still has a country feel about it. There are still small farms about. Their gooseberries and strawberries are famous.

St. Peter's  Church tower
At the center of town is St. Peter’s church which dates back to Saxon times. (I was assured St. Chad himself had preached here.) The current church dates back to the 1860s but the tower was built in the 1300s. The rest of the town though is fairly new. Victorian homes line the streets.

On South Street, Bull Street and York Street there is lower income housing for the working class, but these are not poorly made back-to-backs. Only two sides, not three, butt against their neighbors and they have gardens in the back. Far cry from the slum workers lived in not long ago.

With historic records and DNA scan, I was able to track down the brilliant Francis William Aston. He was in his parents’ garden making mud pies. He will be four next month. I don’t know if its fair to record such a brilliant mind while that mind is still developing, but the folks back home seem to love seeing legends in their youth.

Wanting to get closer to record the lad without scaring him, I pretended I didn’t notice him until I got to the gate. “Oh, hello, young man. Can you tell me where the post office is?”

Francis William Aston (many years later)
He nodded and pointed in the correct direction. Bright lad.

“My word,” I said. “Whatever are you doing?”

“Making mud pies. Want one?” He generously held one out to me.

“Why, yes!”

Aston stood up, his short pants and his legs covered in mud. I hoped his mother would be merciful with him. He came to the gate, holding his gift out to me. I pulled out my handkerchief and carefully took it. “Why thank you very much, young man.”

“Francis. My name is Francis.”

“Thank you, Francis. My name is Dr. Wendell Howe. Very pleased to make your acquaintance. This is a very well-crafted mud pie.”

“The dirt under that bush over there makes the best ones.” Aston said with an air of expertise.

“Francis!” I heard a women’s voice call.

“That’s Mummy.” Aston informed me. “Got to go.” And he turned and dashed off.

I carefully carried my acquisition to a local shop and found a wooden jewelry box. The clerk must have thought me barking mad to put a mud pie in it. I carefully packed it with tissue paper.

I know the University of Birmingham will be very pleased with what I have accumulated today for them. Not only do I have a recording of Francis William Aston as a child, but I have his very first chemistry experiment!

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