Definition for carbon dating

They also sampled artifacts from museums such as a piece of timber from Egyptian pharaoh Senusret III’s funerary boat, an object whose age was known by the record of its owner’s death.

In 1949, Libby and Arnold published their findings in the journal Science, introducing the “Curve of Knowns.” This graph compared the known age of artifacts with the estimated age as determined by the radiocarbon dating method.

Based on Korff’s estimation that just two neutrons were produced per second per square centimeter of earth’s surface, each forming a carbon-14 atom, Libby calculated a ratio of just one carbon-14 atom per every 10 carbon atoms on earth.

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.

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.

Among the first objects tested were samples of redwood and fir trees, the age of which were known by counting their annual growth rings.

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.

Living organisms from today would have the same amount of carbon-14 as the atmosphere, whereas extremely ancient sources that were once alive, such as coal beds or petroleum, would have none left.

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.

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