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Willard F. Libby

Willard F. LibbyAKA Willard Frank Libby

Born: 17-Dec-1908
Birthplace: Grand Valley, CO
Died: 8-Sep-1980
Location of death: Los Angeles, CA
Cause of death: Pneumonia

Gender: Male
Religion: Agnostic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Chemist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Carbon-14 dating technique

American chemist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1960, for introducing a dating methodology using radioactive carbon-14, a long-lived, natural beta-emitting radioisotope emitted in minute quantities by all living things. Libby's system uses chemical analysis to determine the age of organic materials based on carbon-14 content. To measure carbon-14 in ancient materials, Libby and his team spent about three years, 1946-49, developing extremely sensitive Geiger counters, which needed to be extremely well-shielded to eliminate interference from background radiation. First tested and calibrated with material found in 4,000-year-old Egyptian tombs, carbon-dating has been used on progressively older and older relics, and has become an extremely important tool for anthropologists, archaeologists, geologists, and other earth scientists. Carbon-14 dating is now believed to be accurate for finding the age of materials up to 70,000 years old, with a margin of error of about ten percent.

Libby was the son of farmers, played tackle on his high school football team, and paid his college tuition by working on a California fruit ranch, where his job was to nail together wooden crates of fresh-picked fruit. During World War II he worked under Harold C. Urey on America's then-secret Manhattan Project to develop atomic weapons, and showed that cosmic radiation produces tritium. He remained a lifelong proponent of nuclear bombs, offering advice summarized in a glowing 1955 profile in Time magazine as "Let's build them as big as we can, and build all we can. Then war will become inconceivable."

He also studied hot atom chemistry, isotope tracer work and other tracer techniques, and the use of natural tritium in hydrology and geophysics, and served for several years on the US Atomic Energy Commission, where he advocated peaceful uses for atomic energy. His second wife, nuclear physicist Leona Woods, was the top woman to work on the Manhattan Project. His friends and more daring students called him "Wild Bill".

Father: Ora Edward Stocker (farmer, changed name to Libby, b. 2-Nov-1879)
Mother: Eva May Rivers (farmer, b. 21-Apr-1890, m. 1907)
Brother: Elmer
Brother: Raymond
Sister: Eva
Sister: Evelyn
Wife: Leonor Lucinda Hickey (physical education teacher, b. 2-Apr-1912, m. 1940, div. 1966, d. 20-Jun-1992, two daughters)
Daughter: Janet Eva (twin, b. 1945)
Daughter: Susan Charlotte (twin, b. 1945)
Wife: Leona Woods (nuclear physicist, b. 9-Aug-1919, m. 9-Dec-1966, d. 10-Nov-1986)
Son: Peter Marshall (stepson, b. 1944)
Son: John Marshall (stepson, b. 1949)

    High School: Analy High School, Sebastopol, CA (1926)
    University: BS Chemistry, University of California at Berkeley (1931)
    University: PhD Chemistry, University of California at Berkeley (1933)
    Teacher: Chemistry, University of California at Berkeley (1933-41)
    Scholar: Chemistry, Princeton University (1941)
    Scholar: Manhattan Project, Columbia University
    Professor: Chemistry, Fermi Institute for Nuclear Studies, University of Chicago (1945-54)
    Professor: Chemistry, University of California at Los Angeles (1959-76)
    Administrator: Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, UCLA (1962-76)

    Alpha Chi Sigma Chemistry Fraternity 1941
    Guggenheim Fellowship 1941
    Manhattan Project 1941-45
    National Academy of Sciences 1950
    Guggenheim Fellowship 1951
    Research Corporation Award 1951
    Chandler Medal 1954
    US Atomic Energy Commission Commissioner, 1954-59
    Carnegie Institution for Science Geophysical Laboratory, 1954-59
    ACS Award for Nuclear Applications in Chemistry 1956
    Elliott Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute 1957
    ACS Willard Gibbs Medal 1958
    Albert Einstein Medal 1959
    Guggenheim Fellowship 1959-62
    Nobel Prize for Chemistry 1960
    Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Foreign Member, 1960
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Editorial Board, 1960-76
    Arthur L. Day Medal 1961
    Science Editorial Board, 1962-76
    Member of the Board of Douglas Aircraft 1963-67
    American Chemical Society
    Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities Foreign Member
    National Science Foundation

Appears on the cover of:
Time, 15-Aug-1955, captioned "AEC's Willard Libby"

Author of books:
Radiocarbon Dating (1952)
Willard F. Libby: Collected Papers (1981, posthumous)


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