Libby, a physical chemist, is best known for leading a team at the University of Chicago that developed a technology in the late 1940s—radiocarbon dating—that revolutionized how we understand the history of the earth and its living species.
It has successfully determined the age of artifacts up to 50,000 years ago.
Research has been ongoing since the 1960s to determine what the proportion of in the atmosphere has been over the past fifty thousand years.
The resulting data, in the form of a calibration curve, is now used to convert a given measurement of radiocarbon in a sample into an estimate of the sample's calendar age.
The older a sample is, the less (the period of time after which half of a given sample will have decayed) is about 5,730 years, the oldest dates that can be reliably measured by this process date to around 50,000 years ago, although special preparation methods occasionally permit accurate analysis of older samples.
The idea behind radiocarbon dating is straightforward, but years of work were required to develop the technique to the point where accurate dates could be obtained.
Libby was the son of a California farmer and attended college and graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley.
Libby’s theory was rooted in the principal that all living things are composed of carbon.After the war, Libby accepted professorship at the University of Chicago's Institute for Nuclear Studies, where he developed the technique for dating organic compounds using carbon-14.He also discovered that tritium similarly could be used for dating water, and therefore wine.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.