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Known as radiocarbon dating, this method provides objective age estimates for carbon-based objects that originated from living organisms.The “radiocarbon revolution” made possible by Libby’s discovery greatly benefitted the fields of archaeology and geology by allowing practitioners to develop more precise historical chronologies across geography and cultures.Based on Korff’s estimation that just two neutrons were produced per second per square centimeter of earth’s surface, each forming a carbon-14 atom, Libby calculated a ratio of just one carbon-14 atom per every 10 carbon atoms on earth.Libby’s next task was to study the movement of carbon through the carbon cycle.But no one had yet detected carbon-14 in nature— at this point, Korff and Libby’s predictions about radiocarbon were entirely theoretical.In order to prove his concept of radiocarbon dating, Libby needed to confirm the existence of natural carbon-14, a major challenge given the tools then available.

For organic objects of intermediate ages—between a few centuries and several millennia—an age could be estimated by measuring the amount of carbon-14 present in the sample and comparing this against the known half-life of carbon-14.

Finally, Libby had a method to put his concept into practice. The circular arrangement of Geiger counters (center) detected radiation in samples while the thick metal shields on all sides were designed to reduce background radiation.

The concept of radiocarbon dating relied on the ready assumption that once an organism died, it would be cut off from the carbon cycle, thus creating a time-capsule with a steadily diminishing carbon-14 count.

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.

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