Long carbon dating reliable


25-Feb-2020 03:31

Read more on calibration and accuracy of radiocarbon dating.

Geologists do not use carbon-based radiometric dating to determine the age of rocks.

Radiocarbon dating is used to work out the age of things that died up to 50,000 years ago. As far as working out the age of long-dead things goes, carbon has got a few things going for it. The proteins, carbohydrates and fats that make up much of our tissues are all based on carbon.

Everything from the fibres in the Shroud of Turin to Otzi the Iceman has had their birthday determined the carbon-14 way. There's plenty of hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen in living things too, but carbon's got something none of them do — a radioactive isotope that can take thousands of years to decay.

With an extra neutron and one less proton, that's no longer a nitrogen atom — six protons plus eight neutrons spells carbon-14.

The newly formed carbon-14 atoms end up in carbon dioxide, which ends up in plants, which end up on our dinner plates as fruit, veg or a highly processed version of plants known as meat.

(You can read up on radioactivity and isotopes here).

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And the longer dead things lie around, the lower the carbon-14 levels get.

By about 58,000 years (ten half-lives) after an organism has died, there's so little radioactive carbon left (less than 1/1000) that calculations of age are no longer accurate.