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Libby and James Arnold proceeded to test the radiocarbon dating theory by analyzing samples with known ages.For example, two samples taken from the tombs of two Egyptian kings, Zoser and Sneferu, independently dated to 2625 BC plus or minus 75 years, were dated by radiocarbon measurement to an average of 2800 BC plus or minus 250 years. Carbon dioxide produced in this way diffuses in the atmosphere, is dissolved in the ocean, and is taken up by plants via photosynthesis.By contrast, methane created from petroleum showed no radiocarbon activity because of its age.The results were summarized in a paper in Science in 1947, in which the authors commented that their results implied it would be possible to date materials containing carbon of organic origin.Most carbon atoms have six protons and six neutrons in their nuclei and are called carbon 12. But a tiny percentage of carbon is made of carbon 14, or radiocarbon, which has six protons and eight neutrons and is not stable: half of any sample of it decays into other atoms after 5,700 years.Carbon 14 is continually being created in the Earth's atmosphere by the interaction of nitrogen and gamma rays from outer space.But in a dead organism, no new carbon is coming in, and its carbon 14 gradually begins to decay.
The resulting radiocarbon combines with atmospheric oxygen to form radioactive carbon dioxide, which is incorporated into plants by photosynthesis; animals then acquire in a sample from a dead plant or animal such as a piece of wood or a fragment of bone provides information that can be used to calculate when the animal or plant died.
Animals eat the plants, and ultimately the radiocarbon is distributed throughout the biosphere.
The ratio of λ is a constant that depends on the particular isotope; for a given isotope it is equal to the reciprocal of the mean-life – i.e.
The method was developed by Willard Libby in the late 1940s and soon became a standard tool for archaeologists.
Libby received the Nobel Prize for his work in 1960.