Seventy years ago, American chemist Willard Libby devised an ingenious method for dating organic materials. His technique, known as carbon dating, revolutionized the field of archaeology. Now researchers could accurately calculate the age of any object made of organic materials by observing how much of a certain form of carbon remained, and then calculating backwards to determine when the plant or animal that the material came from had died.
An isotope is a form of an element with a certain number of neutrons, which are the subatomic particles found in the nucleus of an atom that have no charge. While the number of protons and electrons in an atom determine what element it is, the number of neutrons can vary widely between different atoms of the same element. Nearly 99 percent of all carbon on Earth is Carbon, meaning each atom has 12 neutrons in its nucleus. The shirt you're wearing, the carbon dioxide you inhale and the animals and plants you eat are all formed mostly of Carbon Carbon is a stable isotope, meaning its amount in any material remains the same year-after-year, century-after-century.
Libby's groundbreaking radiocarbon dating technique instead looked at a much more rare isotope of carbon: Unlike Carbon, this isotope of carbon is unstable, and its atoms decay into an isotope of nitrogen over a period of thousands of years. New Carbon is produced at a steady rate in Earth's upper atmosphere, however, as the Sun's rays strike nitrogen atoms.
Radiocarbon dating exploits this contrast between a stable and unstable carbon isotope. During its lifetime, a plant is constantly taking in carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Animals, in turn, consume this carbon when they eat plants, and the carbon spreads through the food cycle.
This carbon comprises a steady ratio of Carbon and Carbon As scientists will often claim something to be millions or billions of years old ages that do not conform to the Biblical account of the age of the earth , Christians are often left wondering about the accuracy of the carbon method. Carbon is an unstable, radioactive isotope of carbon As with any radioactive isotope, carbon decays over time.
The half-life of carbon 14 is approximate 5, years. That means if you took one pound of percent carbon, in 5, years, you would only have half a pound left.
Radiocarbon Dating: A Closer Look At Its Main Flaws
Carbon is created in the upper atmosphere as nitrogen atoms are bombarded by cosmic radiation. For every one trillion carbon atoms, you will find one carbon atoms. The carbon that results from the reaction caused by cosmic radiation quickly changes to carbon dioxide, just like normal carbon would. The carbon dioxide is utilized by plants in the same way normal carbon dioxide is. This carbon dioxide then ends up in humans and other animals as it moves up the food chain.
There is then a ratio of carbon to carbon in the bodies of plants, humans, and other animals that can fluctuate, but will be fixed at the time of death.
Thanks to Fossil Fuels, Carbon Dating Is in Jeopardy. One Scientist May Have an Easy Fix
After death, the carbon would begin to decay at the rate stated above. Libby introduced the carbon dating method at the University of Chicago.
- Radiocarbon Dating: A Closer Look At Its Main Flaws | Great Discoveries in Archaeology.
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The premise behind the method is to determine the ratio of carbon left in organic matter, and by doing so, estimate how long ago death occurred by running the ratio backwards. The accuracy of this method, however, relies on several faulty assumptions. First, for carbon dating to be accurate, one must assume the rate of decay of carbon has remained constant over the years. However, evidence indicates that the opposite is true.
Experiments have been performed using the radioactive isotopes of uranium and iron, and have shown that rates can and do vary. In fact, changing the environments surrounding the samples can alter decay rates. The second faulty assumption is that the rate of carbon formation has remained constant over the years. There are a few reasons to believe this assumption is erroneous. The industrial revolution greatly increased the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere through the burning of coal.
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Also, the atomic bomb testing around caused a rise in neutrons, which increased carbon concentrations. This would decrease the release of carbon to the atmosphere through the decay of vegetation. Third, for carbon dating to be accurate, the concentrations of carbon and carbon must have remained constant in the atmosphere.
How Accurate is Carbon Dating? Labmate Online
In addition to the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph, the flood provides another evidence that this is a faulty assumption. During the flood, subterranean water chambers that were under great pressure would have been breached.
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This would have resulted in an enormous amount of carbon being released into the oceans and atmosphere. The effect would be not unlike opening a can of soda and having the carbon dioxide fizzing out. The water in these subterranean chambers would not have contained carbon, as the water was shielded from cosmic radiation. Standard calibration curves are now used for more accurate readings. These curves indicate the changes in Carbon throughout the years and modifies the end result of the tests to reflect that.
Though the calibrated date is more precise, many scholars still use the uncalibrated date in order to keep chronologies consistent in academic communities.
As the lecture detailed, it is only accurate from about 62, years ago to 1, A. There is a sizable amount of time before and after that period that cannot be investigated using this method. Also, archaeologists cannot use their hands to touch the samples or smoke near them. They risk seriously altering the result of the test. If an archaeologist wanted to date a dead tree to see when humans used it to build tools, their readings would be significantly thrown off.
This is because radiocarbon dating gives the date when the tree ceased its intake of Carbon—not when it was being used for weapons and other instruments!