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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.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.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.
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.
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.
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.