In the presentation speech for the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, one scientist described the work by honoree Willard Libby with these words: “Seldom has a single discovery in chemistry had such an impact on the thinking of so many fields of human endeavour.
Seldom has a single discovery generated such wide public interest.” Libby’s research demonstrated the usefulness of carbon-14 in dating samples thousands of years old.
The concept behind radiocarbon dating is rather simple.
While organisms live, they incorporate radioactive carbon-14 from the atmosphere.
It is, therefore, not surprising that many misconceptions about what radiocarbon can or cannot do and what it has or has not shown are prevalent among creationists and evolutionists - lay people as well as scientists not directly involved in this field.
Carbon dating is somewhat accurate because we are able to determine what the ratio was in the unobservable past to a certain extent.
By taking a carboniferous specimen of known age (that is, a specimen which we are able to date with reasonable certainty through some archaeological means), scientists are able to determine what the ratio was during a specimen's lifetime.
These two measures of time will only be the same if all of the assumptions which go into the conventional radiocarbon dating technique are valid.
Comparison of ancient, historically dated artifacts (from Egypt, for example) with their radiocarbon dates has revealed that radiocarbon years and calendar years are not the same even for the last 5,000 calendar years.
It also has some applications in geology; its importance in dating organic materials cannot be underestimated enough.