Willard Frank Libby

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Willard Frank Libby (1908 – 1980)

American chemist whose technique of carbon-14 (or radiocarbon) dating provided an extremely valuable tool for archaeologists, anthropologists, and earth scientists. For this development he was honoured with the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1960.

Libby received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a member of the faculty from 1933 to 1945. He was with the Institute for Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago (1945-59) and then was professor of chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, until his death.

While associated with the Manhattan Project (1941-45), Libby helped develop a method for separating uranium isotopes, an essential step in the creation of the atomic bomb. In 1946 he showed that tritium, the heaviest isotope of hydrogen, was produced by cosmic radiation. The following year he and his students developed the carbon-14 dating technique. This technique is used to date material derived from former living organisms as old as 50,000 years. It measures small amounts of radioactivity from the carbon-14 in organic or carbon-containing materials and is able to identify older objects as those having less radioactivity. Libby also served on the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (1955-59) and wrote Radiocarbon Dating (1952).