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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.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.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.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.
Further research by Libby and others established its half-life as 5,568 years (later revised to 5,730 ± 40 years), providing another essential factor in Libby’s concept.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.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.