Libby thus reasoned that by measuring carbon 14 levels in the remains of an organism that died long ago, one could estimate the time of its death.
This procedure of radiocarbon dating has been widely adopted and is considered accurate enough for practical use to study remains up to 50,000 years old.
Radiocarbon decays slowly in a living organism, and the amount lost is continually replenished as long as the organism takes in air or food.
Once the organism dies, however, it ceases to absorb carbon-14, so that the amount of the radiocarbon in its tissues steadily decreases.
For radiocarbon dating to be possible, the material must once have been part of a living organism.