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It relies instead on the progressive decay or disappearance of the radioactive parent with time.The discovery of natural Willard Libby of the United States began with his recognition that a process that had produced radiocarbon in the laboratory was also going on in Earth’s upper atmosphere—namely, the bombardment of nitrogen by free neutrons.Until then, the inherent error from this uncertainty must be recognized.A final problem of importance in carbon-14 dating is the matter of sample contamination.It is clear that carbon-14 dates lack the accuracy that traditional historians would like to have.
A dating method was thus available, subject only to confirmation by actual application to specific chronologic problems.
In addition to spatial variations of the carbon-14 level, the question of temporal variation has received much study.
A 2 to 3 percent depression of the atmospheric radioactive-carbon level since 1900 was noted soon after Libby’s pioneering work, almost certainly the result of the dumping of huge volumes of carbon-14-free carbon dioxide into the air through smokestacks.
So low is such a carbon-14 level that no one had detected natural carbon-14 until Libby, guided by his own predictions, set out specifically to measure it.
His success initiated a series of measurements designed to answer two questions: Is the concentration of carbon-14 uniform throughout the plant and animal kingdoms?