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October 20 2012

A New Leap Forward for Radiocarbon Dating

Until 1949, when archaeologists dug up prehistoric bones, stone points, charcoal remnants or other artifacts from early human history, they had no way of knowing exactly how old these objects were. Chemist Willard Libby changed that, devising an ingenious method for dating ancient objects based on the types of carbon atoms contained within them.

Libby and his colleagues based their idea on the fact that living things incorporate tiny amounts of a certain isotope of carbon (C-14) from the atmosphere into their structure; when they die, they stop adding new C-14, and the quantity left inside slowly degrades into a different element, nitrogen-14. By figuring out that the half-life of C-14 (the amount of time it takes for half of a given quantity of C-14 to decay into N-14) is 5,730 years, they could chemically analyze the ratio of C-14 to N-14 inside a piece of wood or bone and determine just how long it had been dead.

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