The carbon clock is getting reset. Climate records from a Japanese lake are set to improve the accuracy of the dating technique, which could help to shed light on archaeological mysteries such as why Neanderthals became extinct. Carbon dating is used to work out the age of organic material — in effect, any living thing. The technique hinges on carbon, a radioactive isotope of the element that, unlike other more stable forms of carbon, decays away at a steady rate. Organisms capture a certain amount of carbon from the atmosphere when they are alive. By measuring the ratio of the radio isotope to non-radioactive carbon, the amount of carbon decay can be worked out, thereby giving an age for the specimen in question.
The Reliability of Radiocarbon Dating
Radiocarbon dating - Wikipedia
Radiocarbon dating also referred to as carbon dating or carbon dating is a method for determining the age of an object containing organic material by using the properties of radiocarbon , a radioactive isotope of carbon. The method was developed in the late s at the University of Chicago by Willard Libby , who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in It is based on the fact that radiocarbon 14 C is constantly being created in the atmosphere by the interaction of cosmic rays with atmospheric nitrogen. The resulting 14 C combines with atmospheric oxygen to form radioactive carbon dioxide , which is incorporated into plants by photosynthesis ; animals then acquire 14 C by eating the plants. When the animal or plant dies, it stops exchanging carbon with its environment, and thereafter the amount of 14 C it contains begins to decrease as the 14 C undergoes radioactive decay. Measuring the amount of 14 C in a sample from a dead plant or animal, such as a piece of wood or a fragment of bone, provides information that can be used to calculate when the animal or plant died. The older a sample is, the less 14 C there is to be detected, and because the half-life of 14 C the period of time after which half of a given sample will have decayed is about 5, years, the oldest dates that can be reliably measured by this process date to approximately 50, years ago, although special preparation methods occasionally make accurate analysis of older samples possible.
Since , scientists have reckoned the ages of many old objects by measuring the amounts of radioactive carbon they contain. New research shows, however, that some estimates based on carbon may have erred by thousands of years. It is too soon to know whether the discovery will seriously upset the estimated dates of events like the arrival of human beings in the Western Hemisphere, scientists said. But it is already clear that the carbon method of dating will have to be recalibrated and corrected in some cases. They arrived at this conclusion by comparing age estimates obtained using two different methods - analysis of radioactive carbon in a sample and determination of the ratio of uranium to thorium in the sample.
Over time, carbon decays in predictable ways. And with the help of radiocarbon dating, researchers can use that decay as a kind of clock that allows them to peer into the past and determine absolute dates for everything from wood to food, pollen, poop, and even dead animals and humans. While plants are alive, they take in carbon through photosynthesis. Humans and other animals ingest the carbon through plant-based foods or by eating other animals that eat plants. Carbon is made up of three isotopes.