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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.

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.

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.

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.

Libby reached out to Aristid von Grosse (1905–1985) of the Houdry Process Corporation who was able to provide a methane sample that had been enriched in carbon-14 and which could be detected by existing tools.

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.

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.

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