What is Meant by Carbon Dating?
Carbon Dating definition biology can be given as one of the mainstream methods of archaeology for dating organic objects up to 50,000 years old. This process is based on the radiative decay of Carbon-14 isotopes over thousands of years. Scientists have discovered through Physics that radioactive molecules decay at a particular rate dependent on the mass and the atomic number of the decaying atoms.
This discovered constant is used to determine the approximate age of the decaying material through the radioactive isotopes ratio to the estimated initial concentration of these isotopes during the organism's death.
Importance of Carbon Dating
Without the occurrence of radiocarbon dating, "still, we would be foundering in a sea of impressions sometimes called the bred of inspired guesswork, but more often of the imaginative speculation." In the study of our planet's history, carbon-14 dating is a revolutionary advancement. In fact, it is leading to the "reconstruction of the world's history." This dating method allows researchers to learn about past civilizations, changes in the earth, and climate.
Various religions and civilizations have various methods of dating. But however, carbon-14 dating offers something especially valuable, known as absolute dating, which is the substance's age prior to the current time. It means it can be compared and used to dates anywhere in the world. In fact, it is considered as the "most essential development in the absolute dating in archaeology and remains as the primary tool for dating the past 50,000 years". Using this tool, scientists hope to unravel the mysteries of how the developed man happens, where he went, when the first man happened to be lived, and create a human life timetable.
Physics of Carbon Dating
Carbon contains unique properties that are quite essential for life on earth. As the black substance is familiar to us in charred wood, as diamonds and the graphite contain "lead" pencils, carbon comes in various isotopes or forms. A less abundant carbon form has atoms that are 14 times heavy than hydrogen atoms: 14C or carbon-14, or radiocarbon.
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Carbon-14 is a radioactive substance, and at any given moment, it decays in an object. If it is a living object, it's also with a steady rate replacement. Carbon- 14 is created when a neutron gets excited by a cosmic ray, and then, the same neutron collides with a nitrogen atom. The carbon isotope is absorbed by the plants through photosynthesis and consumed by the animals. Also, because of how the sunlight reacts with the atmosphere, it is taken into account by respiration.
Note: Scientists have concluded that very little change has taken place in the ratio of Carbon-12 isotopes to Carbon-14 isotopes in the atmosphere. It means that the relationship between these two should be the same as how they remain today.
Reliability of Carbon Dating
Let us look at what is a carbon dating method as given below:
1. Bristlecone Pine Trees
From the ancient bristlecone pine trees dating from the Western U.S., there has been a correction curve for carbon dating since long-range, back to 5000 BC. The trees, which are dated at 4000 BC, represent the maximum deviation between 600 and 700 years, which is too young by carbon dating.
2. Glacier Measurements
Before carbon dating methods, the sediment age deposited by the last ice age was surmised to be around 25000 years.
These examples have been taken from "The Earth Through Time, and the 2nd Ed. by Harold L. Levin."
Krane has pointed out that the future of carbon dating will not be much reliable due to the changes going to take place in the carbon isotopic mix. Fossil fuels do not contain the carbon-14 content, and the burning of such fuels over the past 100 years has diluted the content of carbon-14. On the other side, the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s increased the content of carbon-14 in the atmosphere. Also, he suggests that this might double the concentration compared to carbon-14 from the production of cosmic rays.
Accelerator Techniques for Carbon Dating
These techniques have extended their range back to around 100,000 years, which is less than half, compared to the direct counting techniques. One can count the atoms of various masses using a mass spectrometer, but it becomes an issue for carbon dating due to the low carbon-14 concentration and the existence of CH₂ and nitrogen-14, which have essentially the same mass.
Tandem and Cyclotron accelerators have both been used to fashion the analyses of the sensitive new mass spectrometer. The tandem accelerator has been considered to be effective in removing CH₂ and nitrogen-14 and followed by the conventional mass spectrometer in separating the C-12, C-13 carbon. A sensitivity of 10-15 in the ratio of 14C:12C has been achieved. These techniques are applied with a small sample like a milligram.