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How Carbon-14 Dating Works

Dating a Fossil


­As soon as a living organism dies, it stops taking in new carbon. The ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-14 at the moment of death is the same as every other living thing, but the carbon-14 decays and is not replaced. The carbon-14 decays with its half-life of 5,700 years, while the amount of carbon-12 remains constant in the sample. By looking at the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-14 in the sample and comparing it to the ratio in a living organism, it is possible to determine the age of a formerly living thing fairly precisely.

A formula to calculate how old a sample is by carbon-14 dating is:

t = [ ln (Nf/No) / (-0.693) ] x t1/2

t = [ ln (Nf/No) / (-0.693) ] x t1/2

where ln is the natural logarithm, Nf/No is the percent of carbon-14 in the sample compared to the amount in living tissue, and t1/2 is the half-life of carbon-14 (5,700 years).

So, if you had a fossil that had 10 percent carbon-14 compared to a living sample, then that fossil would be:

t = [ ln (0.10) / (-0.693) ] x 5,700 years

t = [ (-2.303) / (-0.693) ] x 5,700 years

t = [ 3.323 ] x 5,700 years

t = 18,940 years old

Because the half-life of carbon-14 is 5,700 years, it is only reliable for dating objects up to about 60,000 years old. However, the principle of carbon-14 dating applies to other isotopes as well. Potassium-40 is another radioactive element naturally found in your body and has a half-life of 1.3 billion years. Other useful radioisotopes for radioactive dating include Uranium -235 (half-life = 704 million years), Uranium -238 (half-life = 4.5 billion years), Thorium-232 (half-life = 14 billion years) and Rubidium-87 (half-life = 49 billion years).

The use of various radioisotopes allows the dating of biological and geological samples with a high degree of accuracy. However, radioisotope dating may not work so well in the future. Anything that dies after the 1940s, when Nuclear bombs, nuclear reactors and open-air nuclear tests started changing things, will be harder to date precisely.

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