Willard Libby, while working at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s, developed the radiocarbon dating technique still widely used by archaeologists today. Libby, who took part in the Manhattan Project and won a 1960 Nobel Prize, discovered that by measuring the amount of carbon-14 compared to the amount of carbon-12 in organic remains, researchers could establish approximate age estimates for artifacts.
Libby later taught chemistry at the California University (Berkeley) in 1933. He also received a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1941 and was chosen to work at Princeton University. World War II intervened, however, and he instead went to Columbia University as part of the Manhattan Project. In 1954, President Eisenhower appointed Libby to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and Libby served one five-year term, but turned down a second term, preferring to return to teaching in Berkeley in 1959.
Libby worked many years in a number of research efforts to do with atoms and isotopes. But it was his method to use carbon-14 for age determination that led to his 1960 Nobel Prize. He published a book called "Radiocarbon Dating" with the University of Chicago Press in 1952 [source: Nobelprize.org]. Levels of radioactive carbon-14 remain constant in living organisms because carbon-14 continuously replaces itself as the older element disintegrates. When an organism dies, only the old carbon 14 remains because it does not replenish in a dead organism. Carbon-14 measurements can help determine when the organism died.
Radiocarbon-14 dating most often is associated with dating important archaeological objects, but also is used in geology, geophysics and other sciences. Most organic materials, such as charcoal, wood, bones, shells and plant fibers, can be dated using radiocarbon methods. The system is not perfect and only works for items up to a certain age. There are new dating techniques that also can be used today, but radiocarbon dating has stood the test of time, particularly considering other scientific and technological advancements made during the same period.
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