life · science

Willard Frank Libby – Chemist and Archaeological Pioneer

I had a friend of mine decide to give me a random bit of homework to get me used to going back to school. Out of nowhere, she said I should write a little report about someone I share a birthday with. Well, I really, really like evolution, and understanding evolution and the age of the Earth and everything. This leads to an intrigue in radiocarbon dating (and other methods). Well, I found out that I share a birthday with the man that invented radiocarbon dating! Here’s the report I did:

Willard Frank Libby was born on December 17, 1908 and died September 8, 1980 at the age of 71. He was a physical chemist, and developed one of the most revolutionary processes there has been in archaeology and paleontology.

He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1927 with a chemistry degree, and subsequently received his doctorate in 1933, and finally went into radioactivity as his field of study.

Both during and after World War II he stayed very busy and helped discover several new processes. During the war, he worked with the Manhattan Project on Substitute Alloy Materials (SAM) to help develop a process for uranium enrichment. After the war he started as a professor at the University of Chicago’s Institute for Nuclear Studies. This is where he first uncovered the process of radiocarbon dating using Carbon-14 to get a real, close estimate to the age of organic items going as far back as 50,000 years old. This is one of the most important scientific breakthroughs that the archeaological community has ever had.

As if that wasn’t enough, he also created a process to help date water using tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. In doing this, he helped wine connoisseurs know the age of their wine, as he could test the age of the wine as well.

In 1950 he became a member of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1954 he was appointed a commissioner for the AEC, and incidentally became their sole scientist.

In 1959, he resigned from the AEC and became Professor of Chemistry at UCLA. He was appointed the Director of the University of California statewide Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP). In 1972 he started the first Environmental Engineering and he worked to develop and improve California’s air pollution standards while he was a member of the California Air Resources Board. He continued in his positions until retiring in 1976 as .

Though he retired in 1976 as a professor emeritus, he certainly kept himself busy. He remained a professionally active member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society until 1980, when he died.

Willard was given a multitude of honors and awards throughout the latter part of his career. He received Columbia University’s Chandler Medal in 1954, the Remsen Memorial Lecture Award in 1955, the Bicentennial Lecture Award from the City College of New York and the Nuclear Applications in Chemistry Award in 1956. He also received the Franklin Institute’s Elliott Cresson medal and the American Chemical Society’s Willard Gibbs Award in 1957 and 58 respectively. In 1959 he received the Priestley Medal from Dickinson College and the Albert Einstein Medal in 1959. After 1960 he was awarded the Geological Society of America’s Arthur L Day Medal (1961), the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Chemists (1970) and the Lehman Award from the New York Academy of Sciences (1971).

 

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