Brief history of carbon dating

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.

The impact of the radiocarbon dating technique on modern man has made it one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century.

No other scientific method has managed to revolutionize man’s understanding not only of his present but also of events that already happened thousands of years ago.

Radiocarbon, or carbon 14, is an isotope of the element carbon that is unstable and weakly radioactive. Carbon 14 is continually being formed in the upper atmosphere by the effect of cosmic ray neutrons on nitrogen 14 atoms.

It is rapidly oxidized in air to form carbon dioxide and enters the global carbon cycle.

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The resulting radiocarbon combines with atmospheric oxygen to form radioactive carbon dioxide, which is incorporated into plants by photosynthesis; animals then acquire in a sample from a dead plant or animal such as a piece of wood or a fragment of bone provides information that can be used to calculate when the animal or plant died. The method was developed by Willard Libby in the late 1940s and soon became a standard tool for archaeologists.Libby received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in 1960.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.American physical chemist Willard Libby led a team of scientists in the post World War II era to develop a method that measures radiocarbon activity.

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