WILLARD LIBBY (1908- 80)

1946 – USA

‘Radiocarbon can be used to estimate the age of any organic material. The radioactive isotope of carbon,14C (carbon-14) is present in all living things. When life stops 14C begins to decay. From the rate of decay the age (or time of death) of an organism can be calculated’

The two most common forms of carbon 12C and 13C, make up virtually all types of carbon and are stable – 12C is the simplest form and is made up of 6 protons and 6 neutrons; 13C is slightly heavier because it has one more neutron. 14C, known as radiocarbon has the unstable combination of 6 protons (defining it as carbon) and 8 neutrons.

In the late 1940s Libby led the team at the University of Chicago, USA, that developed radiocarbon dating using the radioactive isotope 14C.

Living things go on absorbing 14C until the time of their death. The half-life of 14C is 5730 years – once an organism dies, 14C begins to decay. As a result the ratio of 12C to 14C changes with time. By measuring this ratio, it can be determined when the organism died.

Libby suggested that minute amounts of radiocarbon come from the upper part of the atmosphere. He put forward the idea that when high-energy particles formed in deep space – cosmic rays – reach the atmosphere, they interact with nitrogen gas to form radiocarbon. He argued that the newly formed radiocarbon is rapidly converted to carbon-dioxide, CO2, and is taken up by plants during photosynthesis; with the result that the radiocarbon enters the food chain. Everything alive should therefore have the same radiocarbon concentration as the atmosphere.

Once an individual dies, some of the 14C atoms begin to disintegrate and give off an electron to reform nitrogen. Libby argued that if the original radiocarbon content is known. it should be possible to measure the remaining 14C in a sample of tissue to back-calculate its age, in a similar way to estimating how much time has passed by measuring the amount of sand left in the top of an egg timer.
By the end of the 1940s, Libby and his team had shown that the radiocarbon content of the air was the same around the world and that 14C could be used to date anything organic.

The crucial principle is the half-life of the unstable atom, the rate at which it will break down. The longer the half-life of a material, the further back in time a dating method can go. With radiocarbon, the dating range is 40,000 to 60,000 years.

When Libby originally measured the half-life of radiocarbon, he calculated it to be just over 5720 years. During the 1950s a new estimate of 5568 years was made by other researchers, who assumed that Libby had got his figures wrong and the 5568-year half-life was adopted by the scientific community.
It is now known that the half-life of radiocarbon is 5730 years, virtually identical to Libby’s original estimate. As a result of the large number of samples that had already been dated, the incorrect value of 5568-years is used in estimates – confusingly this is now termed the ‘Libby half-life’. As all labs use the same half-life value, all ages are directly comparable.

With radiocarbon dating the assumptions made are:

  1. that the atmosphere has had the same 14C content in the past as today
  2. that all things alive have the same radiocarbon content as one-another and as the atmosphere
  3. that no more radiocarbon is added to a sample after death

To obtain a final radiocarbon age, we have to use a point in time to compare against. 1950 is used as year zero and all ages are described relative to this as ‘before present’ (BP). Radiocarbon dating does not give a precise date and estimates are given within a range of uncertainty.

Libby received numerous awards for this work,including the 1960 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Libby also worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II, helping to enrich the uranium used in the atomic bombs.

picture of the Nobel medal - link to nobelprize.org

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