Dedicated at the University of Chicago on October 10, 2016.
In 1946, Willard Libby proposed an innovative method for dating organic materials by measuring their content of carbon-14, a newly discovered radioactive isotope of carbon.
Radiocarbon dating would be most successful if two important factors were true: that the concentration of carbon-14 in the atmosphere had been constant for thousands of years, and that carbon-14 moved readily through the atmosphere, biosphere, oceans and other reservoirs—in a process known as the carbon cycle.
Top of page You read statements in books that such and such a society or archeological site is 20,000 years old.We learned rather abruptly that these numbers, these ancient ages, are not known accurately; in fact, it is at about the time of the First Dynasty in Egypt that the first historical date of any real certainty has been established.” —Willard Libby, Nobel Lecture, 12 December 1960 The concept of radiocarbon dating focused on measuring the carbon content of discreet organic objects, but in order to prove the idea Libby would have to understand the earth’s carbon system.Top of page Carbon-14 was first discovered in 1940 by Martin Kamen (1913–2002) and Samuel Ruben (1913–1943), who created it artificially using a cyclotron accelerator at the University of California Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley.Further research by Libby and others established its half-life as 5,568 years (later revised to 5,730 ± 40 years), providing another essential factor in Libby’s concept.Libby and graduate student Ernest Anderson (1920–2013) calculated the mixing of carbon across these different reservoirs, particularly in the oceans, which constitute the largest reservoir.
Their results predicted the distribution of carbon-14 across features of the carbon cycle and gave Libby encouragement that radiocarbon dating would be successful.
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Theoretically, if one could detect the amount of carbon-14 in an object, one could establish that object’s age using the half-life, or rate of decay, of the isotope.
In 1946, Libby proposed this groundbreaking idea in the journal Physical Review.
Korff predicted that the reaction between these neutrons and nitrogen-14, which predominates in the atmosphere, would produce carbon-14, also called radiocarbon.