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However, the rates of movement of carbon throughout the cycle were not then known.

Libby and graduate student Ernest Anderson (1920–2013) calculated the mixing of carbon across these different reservoirs, particularly in the oceans, which constitute the largest reservoir.

Radiocarbon dating would be most successful if two important factors were true: that the concentration of carbon-14 in the atmosphere had been constant for thousands of years, and that carbon-14 moved readily through the atmosphere, biosphere, oceans and other reservoirs—in a process known as the carbon cycle.

In 1946, Willard Libby proposed an innovative method for dating organic materials by measuring their content of carbon-14, a newly discovered radioactive isotope of carbon.

Known as radiocarbon dating, this method provides objective age estimates for carbon-based objects that originated from living organisms.

Nevertheless, it remains the most accurate means of dating the scientific community has discovered so far. We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about How Carbon Dating Works.

Until such time that another method becomes available – and one that produces smaller margins of error – it will remain the method of choice for archeology, paleontology, and other branches of scientific research.

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In the absence of any historical data concerning the intensity of cosmic radiation, Libby simply assumed that it had been constant.

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