Carbon-14 Dating: all viewpoints
How it works; its limitations
How the technique works:
All living things -- animal or vegetable -- contain large amounts of carbon.
This includes wood, bone, leather, hair, pottery, coral, paper, resin, etc. For
example, the analysis of the Shroud of Turin,
was possible because it was made of linen which is a product made from flax. The
carbon in the flax was used to estimate the shroud's age.
Carbon appears in three forms in nature:
|Carbon-12: (C-12) This is a stable form of carbon. About 98.89% of
the carbon in living matter is of this form.|
|Carbon-13: (C-13) This is another stable form, comprising 1.11% of
carbon in living matter.|
|Carbon 14: (C-14) This is an unstable radioactive isotope present in
very small quantities (0.00000000010%) in living matter. It is continuously
decaying. That is, individual C-14 atoms within a sample of carbon are continually
changing to Nitrogen-14. It takes over five millennia for half of the C-14
atoms in an object to decay. After about 10 millennia, only one quarter of the
C-14 atoms remain.|
This means that a living plant or animal has only one Carbon 14 atom for every
trillion Carbon 12 atoms. C-14 is formed when cosmic rays knock neutrons out
of carbon atoms in the Earth's upper atmosphere. Some of these neutrons hit
Nitrogen-14 nuclei, causing a proton to be ejected, and converting them to C-14.
In a process called photosynthesis, plants use the energy in sunlight to
convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into carbon-bearing compounds that
the plant can utilize. This
process continues as long as the plants are alive. Some animals eat plants and use the carbon in
the food to help them grow. Some animals eat other animals, and similarly use
the carbon that they ingest. Because of the flow of carbon along the food chain,
the ratio of C-14 to C-12 in living matter remains approximately the same as the
ratio in the atmosphere while the plant or animal lived. In the case of
flax, it progresses from seed, to adult plant, to cultivation in a matter of months.
There is no opportunity for a significant percentage of C-14 to decay while the
flax is alive. C-14 decay only becomes significant in the ongoing centuries after the plant dies.
As an initial working hypothesis, one might assume that the ratio of Carbon 14 to
Carbon 12 has been constant through the past 50,000 years. After the plant or
animal dies, no more carbon is ingested from the environment. Individual C-14
decay by changing back into N-14, a stable form of Nitrogen. After 5,730 years, only half of
the original C-14 is left. After another 5,730 years, only a quarter of the
original amount it is left; after another 5,730 years, only one eighth is left.
The term "half-life" ("t 1/2") refers to the time taken for half of the
atoms to decay. C-14's half life is 5,730 years ±40 years. Thus by measuring the ratio of Carbon 14 to Carbon 12 in the
sample, one can estimate the number of years before the present time ("BP") when the
plant or animal died.
Libby and his team computed the theoretical ratio of C-14 to C-12 that they
expected for various ages of objects, subject to the assumption that the ratio in
the atmosphere has always been constant.
They then tested the C-14 dating technique on a number of carbon-bearing
samples from ancient Egypt whose age was already precisely known. The ancient
Egyptians had a calendar with some known peculiarities that has enabled
archeologists to translate dates from the Egyptian calendar to our own. For
example, they obtained a sample of wood from
Pharaoh Zoser's tomb which was part of a living tree circa 2600 BCE. The agreement between the
theoretical curve and the actual results was very close. "Each result was
within the statistical range of the true historic date of each sample:" 1
They also counted annual growth rings in some 1000 to 1500 year
old tree samples to precisely determine their age. Their initial calibration
curve is shown below.
Additional points have been determined to confirm that the
theoretical curve is accurate beyond 10,000 years before the present.
- Radiocarbon WEBinfo site, at:
- Arnold and Libby, "Age determinations by radiocarbon content: Checks with
samples of known age" Science (1949).
Copyright © 2005 to
2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-FEB-08
Latest update: 2009-MAR-22
Author: B.A. Robinson