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    The math behind radioactive carbon dating

    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. Carbon dating has given archeologists a more accurate method by which they can determine the age of ancient artifacts. Libby invented carbon dating for which he received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1960.Korff predicted that the reaction between these neutrons and nitrogen-14, which predominates in the atmosphere, would produce carbon-14, also called radiocarbon.

    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.

    Top of page Carbon-14 was first discovered in 1940 by Martin Kamen (1913–2002) and Samuel Ruben (1913–1943), who created it artificially using a cyclotron accelerator at the University of California Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley.

    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.

    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.

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