The ratio of λ is a constant that depends on the particular isotope; for a given isotope it is equal to the reciprocal of the mean-life – i.e.

the average or expected time a given atom will survive before undergoing radioactive decay. The calculations involve several steps and include an intermediate value called the "radiocarbon age", which is the age in "radiocarbon years" of the sample: an age quoted in radiocarbon years means that no calibration curve has been used − the calculations for radiocarbon years assume that the , which for more than a decade after Libby's initial work was thought to be 5,568 years.

The results were summarized in a paper in Science in 1947, in which the authors commented that their results implied it would be possible to date materials containing carbon of organic origin.

Libby and James Arnold proceeded to test the radiocarbon dating theory by analyzing samples with known ages.

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The resulting data, in the form of a calibration curve, is now used to convert a given measurement of radiocarbon in a sample into an estimate of the sample's calendar age.