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.They also sampled artifacts from museums such as a piece of timber from Egyptian pharaoh Senusret III’s funerary boat, an object whose age was known by the record of its owner’s death.In 1949, Libby and Arnold published their findings in the journal Science, introducing the “Curve of Knowns.” This graph compared the known age of artifacts with the estimated age as determined by the radiocarbon dating method.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.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.
Libby reached out to Aristid von Grosse (1905–1985) of the Houdry Process Corporation who was able to provide a methane sample that had been enriched in carbon-14 and which could be detected by existing tools.
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.
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.