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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.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.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.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.
However, the rates of movement of carbon throughout the cycle were not then known.
At the time, no radiation-detecting instrument (such as a Geiger counter) was sensitive enough to detect the small amount of carbon-14 that Libby’s experiments required.
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.
Finally, Libby had a method to put his concept into practice. The circular arrangement of Geiger counters (center) detected radiation in samples while the thick metal shields on all sides were designed to reduce background radiation.
The concept of radiocarbon dating relied on the ready assumption that once an organism died, it would be cut off from the carbon cycle, thus creating a time-capsule with a steadily diminishing carbon-14 count.