Which two isotopes are compared in radiocarbon dating

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.

Willard Libby (1908–1980), a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, began the research that led him to radiocarbon dating in 1945.

Libby’s next task was to study the movement of carbon through the carbon cycle.

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.

In the absence of any historical data concerning the intensity of cosmic radiation, Libby simply assumed that it had been constant.

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.

Their results predicted the distribution of carbon-14 across features of the carbon cycle and gave Libby encouragement that radiocarbon dating would be successful.

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.

Known as radiocarbon dating, this method provides objective age estimates for carbon-based objects that originated from living organisms.

Materials that originally came from living things, such as wood and natural fibres, can be dated by measuring the amount of carbon-14 they contain.

For example, in 1991, two hikers discovered a mummified man, preserved for centuries in the ice on an alpine mountain.

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.

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.

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