Willard Libby, Radiocarbon, and Carbon Dating

Resources with Additional Information · Radiocarbon Dating

Willard Libby
UCLA Photography

'Scientific discoveries of various magnitudes are constantly occurring in myriad fields of study. It is a rarity, however, to make a breakthrough that not only has an impact on an individual field but also revolutionizes scientific thought across multiple disciplines. Willard Frank Libby accomplished this feat. Libby first proposed his idea of carbon dating in 1947 and over the next 12 years he researched and perfected the process. Libby discovered that when plants absorb carbon for photosynthesis they also absorb certain amounts of carbon-14. He deduced that when the plant dies, it no longer absorbs any of this carbon and that carbon-14 decays at a predictable rate. Libby found a way to determine the age of plant-based artifacts utilizing the decay rate of carbon-14. This process has been used to determine the age of mummies, prehistoric artifacts and dwellings. This dating technique has proven extremely valuable to earth scientists, archeologists, and anthropologists. '1

Libby received his B.S. in Chemistry in 1931 and his Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1933, both from the University of California, Berkeley. From 1941 - 1945 he worked at Columbia University on the Manhattan Project and, in October 1945, he accepted a five-year appointment to be a member of the US Atomic Energy Commission, where he helped organize the International Atomic Energy Agency and the first Atoms for Peace Conference. In 1959 he became a Professor of chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles,2 where he founded the UCLA Environmental Science and Engineering (ESE) Program in 1973.3 In 1960, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for "his method to use carbon-14 for age determination in archaeology, geology, geophysics, and other branches of science".


Resources with Additional Information

Additional information about Willard F. Libby, carbon 14, and radiocarbon dating is available in electronic documents and on the Web.


Radiocarbon from Pile Graphite; Chemical Methods for Its Concentrations, DOE Technical Report Download Adobe PDF Reader, October 1946

Progress in the Use of Isotopes: The Atomic Triad - Reactors, Radioisotopes and Radiation, DOE Technical Report Download Adobe PDF Reader, August 1958

History of Radiocarbon Dating, DOE Technical Report Download Adobe PDF Reader, August 1967

Vulcanism and Radiocarbon Dates, DOE Technical Report Download Adobe PDF Reader, October 1972

Radiocarbon Dating, Memories, and Hopes, DOE Technical Report Download Adobe PDF Reader, October 1972


Additional Web Pages:


Some links on this page may take you to non-federal websites. Their policies may differ from this site.