No other scientific method has managed to revolutionize man’s understanding not only of his present but also of events that already happened thousands of years ago.
Archaeology and other human sciences use radiocarbon dating to prove or disprove theories.
Background radiocarbon activity is measured, and the values obtained are deducted from the sample’s radiocarbon dating results.
American physical chemist Willard Libby led a team of scientists in the post World War II era to develop a method that measures radiocarbon activity.
He is credited to be the first scientist to suggest that the unstable carbon isotope called radiocarbon or carbon 14 might exist in living matter. Libby and his team of scientists were able to publish a paper summarizing the first detection of radiocarbon in an organic sample. Libby who first measured radiocarbon’s rate of decay and established 5568 years ± 30 years as the half-life. Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in recognition of his efforts to develop radiocarbon dating.1.
The radiocarbon age of a certain sample of unknown age can be determined by measuring its carbon 14 content and comparing the result to the carbon 14 activity in modern and background samples.
The principal modern standard used by radiocarbon dating labs was the Oxalic Acid I obtained from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland. Around 95% of the radiocarbon activity of Oxalic Acid I is equal to the measured radiocarbon activity of the absolute radiocarbon standard—a wood in 1890 unaffected by fossil fuel effects.
Accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) is a modern radiocarbon dating method that is considered to be the more efficient way to measure radiocarbon content of a sample.
In this method, the carbon 14 content is directly measured relative to the carbon 12 and carbon 13 present. Some inorganic matter, like a shell’s aragonite component, can also be dated as long as the mineral’s formation involved assimilation of carbon 14 in equilibrium with the atmosphere.
When they die, they stop exchanging carbon with the biosphere and their carbon 14 content then starts to decrease at a rate determined by the law of radioactive decay.
Radiocarbon dating is essentially a method designed to measure residual radioactivity.
Over the years, other secondary radiocarbon standards have been made.
Radiocarbon activity of materials in the background is also determined to remove its contribution from results obtained during a sample analysis.
There are three principal techniques used to measure carbon 14 content of any given sample— gas proportional counting, liquid scintillation counting, and accelerator mass spectrometry.