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By knowing how much carbon 14 is left in a sample, the age of the organism when it died can be known.
It must be noted though that radiocarbon dating results indicate when the organism was alive but not when a material from that organism was used.
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.
Discovery of Radiocarbon Dating (accessed October 31, 2017). Sheridan Bowman, Radiocarbon Dating: Interpreting the Past (1990), University of California Press Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Radiocarbon Dating Calibration of Carbon 14 Dating Results Radiocarbon Dating and Bomb Carbon About AMS Dating Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) dating involves accelerating ions to extraordinarily high kinetic energies followed by mass analysis.
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.
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.