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Application of carbon dating in archeology
Willard Libby (1908–1980), a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, began the research that led him to radiocarbon dating in 1945.He was inspired by physicist Serge Korff (1906–1989) of New York University, who in 1939 discovered that neutrons were produced during the bombardment of the atmosphere by cosmic rays.Korff predicted that the reaction between these neutrons and nitrogen-14, which predominates in the atmosphere, would produce carbon-14, also called radiocarbon.
Using this sample and an ordinary Geiger counter, Libby and Anderson established the existence of naturally occurring carbon-14, matching the concentration predicted by Korff. Fortunately, Libby’s group developed an alternative. They surrounded the sample chamber with a system of Geiger counters that were calibrated to detect and eliminate the background radiation that exists throughout the environment.
The assembly was called an “anti-coincidence counter.” When it was combined with a thick shield that further reduced background radiation and a novel method for reducing samples to pure carbon for testing, the system proved to be suitably sensitive.
He reasoned that a state of equilibrium must exist wherein the rate of carbon-14 production was equal to its rate of decay, dating back millennia.
(Fortunately for him, this was later proven to be generally true.) For the second factor, it would be necessary to estimate the overall amount carbon-14 and compare this against all other isotopes of carbon.
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.
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.
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.