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.
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.
In the absence of any historical data concerning the intensity of cosmic radiation, Libby simply assumed that it had been constant.
However, the rates of movement of carbon throughout the cycle were not then known.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.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.Living organisms from today would have the same amount of carbon-14 as the atmosphere, whereas extremely ancient sources that were once alive, such as coal beds or petroleum, would have none left.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.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.To test the technique, Libby’s group applied the anti-coincidence counter to samples whose ages were already known.Among the first objects tested were samples of redwood and fir trees, the age of which were known by counting their annual growth rings.