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Willard Libby was an American physical chemist credited for the development of radiocarbon dating for which he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960. It became an extremely valuable tool for archaeologists, paleontologists, anthropologists, and other fields that dealt with ancient artifacts.
See the fact file below for more information on the Willard Libby or alternatively, you can download our 25-page Willard Libby worksheet pack to utilise within the classroom or home environment.
Key Facts & Information
GOODYEAR’S EARLY LIFE
- Willard Frank Libby was born on December 17, 1908, in Grand Valley, Colorado, to Ora Edward Libby and Eva May Rivers, who were farmers.
- He had two brothers and two sisters. Libby got his basic education in a two-room Colorado schoolhouse and Analy High School in Sebastopol after his family moved to Santa Rosa, California when he was five.
- Libby played tackle on the high school football team as his height, 6 feet 2 inches, was a great asset. He graduated in 1926.
- He entered the University of California, Berkeley, and received his BS in 1931. He did his doctoral thesis on the “Radioactivity of ordinary elements, especially samarium and neodymium: method of detection,” at the same university and received his PhD in 1933.
- He was appointed instructor in the University’s Department of Chemistry. He became an assistant professor in 1938, and after ten years of working there, he was awarded a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship and elected to work at Princeton University.
- However, when World War II broke out in 1941, his fellowship was interrupted. He then went to Columbia University to work on the Manhattan Project.
THE MANHATTAN PROJECT
- Libby contributed to developing the procedure of gaseous diffusion for uranium enrichment at the SAM laboratories for the next three years. Libby and his team had to study different barriers and the means to protect them from corrosion from the uranium hexafluoride.
- Libby also helped engineers from Kellex design a gaseous diffusion plant to produce enriched uranium, which became known as K-25. However, K25 was canceled initially to give way to K27. The former commenced operation and achieved its full potential with K27 in the early postwar period. They became the prototypes of the new generation plants. The Enriched Uranium that both plants had produced was used in the Little Boy bomb employed in the Hiroshima Bombing on August 6, 1945.
- When news about the bombing spread, Libby brought home newspapers and told his wife that it was what he had been working on.
AFTER THE WAR
- Libby worked at the University of Chicago as a Professor of Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and Institute for Nuclear Studies.
- In 1945, Libby started his research on radiocarbon dating. He was inspired by the discovery of physicist Serge Kroff that cosmic rays create showers of neutrons. The physicist predicted that the reaction between neutrons and nitrogen-1, which covered 78% of the atmosphere, would produce carbon-14 or radiocarbon.
- Libby concluded that carbon dioxide in carbon 14 was continuously absorbed by plants and became part of their tissues. Therefore, these tissues contain carbon 14. Additionally, as the animals consume plants, carbon 14 could also be traced on the animal remains. Carbon 14 remains incorporated in the tissue of these organisms. Once they are dead, carbon 14 starts to go away. It will be the basis of counting its age with carbon 12 as its baseline.
- Carbon 12 reacts the same way as Carbon 14 during the absorption process, but remains stable on the remains.
- In 1946, he published his theory and expanded on it in his monograph Radiocarbon Dating in 1955.
- To put his theory into practice, he reached out to Aristid von Grosse of the Houdry Process Corporation in 1947, who helped him by providing methane samples enriched in carbon 14. He and his assistant, Ernest Anderson combined this sample and a tool called a Geiger counter, and established the existence of naturally occurring carbon 14.
- However, this method was slow and expensive, so Libby’s group enhanced the system by surrounding the sample chamber with calibrated Geiger counters to detect and eliminate background radiation. They called it the “anti-coincidence counter”.
- They combined it with a thick shield to further reduce background radiation and a new method for decreasing samples to pure carbon for testing. The new system proved to be more effective.
- In 1948, he began dating some Egyptian samples. He verified the accuracy by applying samples against redwood trees, whose age can be known from their tree rings, or wood from a funerary boat of Pharaoh Sesostris III, whose ages were also already known.
- The technique revolutionized paleontology, archeology, and other fields that dealt with ancient artifacts. He and his students used the technique to date artifacts such as the Dead Sea scrolls’ linen wrappings and buried bread from the Vesuvius eruption.
- Libby humbly estimated that the method could measure ages up to 20,000 years. However, with technological advancements, carbon dating can reliably date materials as old as 50,000 years
- For this, Libby was awarded the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1960.
- Libby remained at the University of Chicago until President Eisenhower appointed him as a US Atomic Energy Commission member on October 1, 1954. Libby played an essential role in promoting the President’s Atoms of Peace Program. In 1955 and 1958, he was part of the US delegation at the Geneva Conferences on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.
- Libby resigned from AEC and moved to teach at the University of California as a professor of Chemistry. He remained at the department until January 1, 1962, when he was appointed as director of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. Willard Libby was with UCLA until his retirement in 1976.
ATOMIC ENERGY COMMISSION
- In 1940, Willard Libby married Leonor Hickey, a physical education teacher, and had twin daughters, Janet Eva and Susan Charlotte, born in 1945. However, the two divorced in 1966.
- Years later, Libby married a distinguished nuclear physicist, Leona Woods Marshall, one of the world’s first nuclear reactor builders, the Chicago Pile-1. Marshall joined him at UCLA as an environmental engineering professor. Libby gained two stepsons through this second marriage, his second wife’s children from her first marriage.
- On September 8, 1980, Libby died at the UCLA Medical Center due to a blood clot in his lung from complications of pneumonia.
Willard Libby Worksheets
This is a fantastic bundle which includes everything you need to know about Willard Libby across 25 in-depth pages. These are ready-to-use Willard Libby worksheets that are perfect for teaching students about Willard Libby who was an American physical chemist credited for the development of radiocarbon dating for which he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960. It became an extremely valuable tool for archaeologists, paleontologists, anthropologists, and other fields that dealt with ancient artifacts.
Complete List Of Included Worksheets
- Willard Libby Facts
- Willard’s Bio
- Libby’s Speeches
- Carbon Dating Theory
- Proving His Theory
- Discovering Carbon Dating
- Colored Fact or Bluff
- Characteristics of a Winner
- Universities of His Life
- Carbon Dating News
- AEC and MP
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