Paleontology seeks to map out how life evolved across geologic time.
A substantial hurdle is the difficulty of working out fossil ages.
Dedicated at the University of Chicago on October 10, 2016.
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.
Korff predicted that the reaction between these neutrons and nitrogen-14, which predominates in the atmosphere, would produce carbon-14, also called radiocarbon.
Libby cleverly realized that carbon-14 in the atmosphere would find its way into living matter, which would thus be tagged with the radioactive isotope.
The deeper layers are older than the layers found at the top, which aids in determining the relative age of fossils found within the strata. Such index fossils must be distinctive, globally distributed, and occupy a short time range to be useful.
Radiocarbon decays slowly in a living organism, and the amount lost is continually replenished as long as the organism takes in air or food.
Once the organism dies, however, it ceases to absorb carbon-14, so that the amount of the radiocarbon in its tissues steadily decreases.
Willard Libby (1908–1980), a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, began the research that led him to radiocarbon dating in 1945.
He was inspired by physicist Serge Korff (1906–1989) of New York University, who in 1939 discovered that neutrons were produced during the bombardment of the atmosphere by cosmic rays.