Asked by: William Baker

Or in other words, if we have a box, and we don't know how old it is but we know it started with 100 carbon 14 atoms, and we open it and find only 50 carbon 14 atoms and some other stuff, we could say, 'Aha! It must be 1 carbon 14 half-life (or 5730 years) old.' This is the basic idea behind carbon dating.

So in the real world, looking at a sample like say a bone dug up by an archaeologist, how do we know how much carbon 14 we started with? That's actually kind of cool. It's a semi-long story, so bear with me. In the atmosphere, cosmic rays smash into normal carbon 12 atoms (in atmospheric carbon dioxide), and create carbon 14 isotopes. This process is constantly occurring, and has been for a very long time, so there is a fairly constant ratio of carbon 14 atoms to carbon 12 atoms in the atmosphere. Now living plants 'breathe' CO

In actually measuring these quantities, we take advantage of the fact that the rate of decay (how many radioactive emissions occur per unit time) is dependent on how many atoms there are in a sample (this criteria leads to an exponential decay rate). We have devices to measure the radioactivity of a sample, and the ratio described above translates into a rate of 15.6 decays/min per gram of carbon in a living sample. And if you play with the exponential decay equations, you can come up with the nice formula (1/2)

1) Obviously, this technique only works for dead organic material.

2) This technique is best for dating items which died between on the order of 1000 to on the order of 1,000,000 years ago. Carbon 14 dating is not great for dating things like a year old because if much less than 1 half-life has passed, barely any of the carbon 14 has decayed, and it is difficult to measure the difference in rates and know with certainty the time involved. On the other hand, if tons of half-lives have passed, there is almost none of the sample carbon 14 left, and it is really hard to measure accurately how much is left. Since physics can't predict exactly when a given atom will decay, we rely on statistical methods in dealing with radioactivity, and while this is an excellent method for a bazillion atoms, it fails when we don't have good sample sizes. However it is possible, when dating very old rocks for instance, to use longer lived isotopes for dating on a longer time scale.

3) The assumption we based this on (that the ratio of carbon 14 in the atmosphere and thus in living organisms is constant) is a decent one for ballpark figures, but this method will not be able to give results accurate to, say, a couple of minutes.

For more info on carbon dating go to:

- Radiocarbon 14 Web

- How is carbon dating done?

from University of Colorado

- Carbon dating calculator

Answered by: Gregory Ogin, Physics Undergraduate Student, UST, St. Paul, MN

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'Our job in physics is to see things simply, to understand a great many complicated phenomena, in terms of a few simple principles.'**Steven Weinberg**

(*1933-*)