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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.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.In a system where carbon-14 is readily exchanged throughout the cycle, the ratio of carbon-14 to other carbon isotopes should be the same in a living organism as in the atmosphere.However, the rates of movement of carbon throughout the cycle were not then known.Korff predicted that the reaction between these neutrons and nitrogen-14, which predominates in the atmosphere, would produce carbon-14, also called radiocarbon.Libby cleverly realized that carbon-14 in the atmosphere would find its way into living matter, which would thus be tagged with the radioactive isotope.
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.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.It showed all of Libby’s results lying within a narrow statistical range of the known ages, thus proving the success of radiocarbon dating.Top of page The “Curve of Knowns” compared the known age of historical artifacts associated with the Bible, Pompeii, and Egyptian dynasties with their age as determined by radiocarbon dating.
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Dedicated at the University of Chicago on October 10, 2016.