The idea behind radiocarbon dating is straightforward, but years of work were required to develop the technique to the point where accurate dates could be obtained.
Research has been ongoing since the 1960s to determine what the proportion of in the atmosphere has been over the past fifty thousand years.
The resulting radiocarbon combines with atmospheric oxygen to form radioactive carbon dioxide, which is incorporated into plants by photosynthesis; animals then acquire in a sample from a dead plant or animal such as a piece of wood or a fragment of bone provides information that can be used to calculate when the animal or plant died.
The older a sample is, the less (the period of time after which half of a given sample will have decayed) is about 5,730 years, the oldest dates that can be reliably measured by this process date to around 50,000 years ago, although special preparation methods occasionally permit accurate analysis of older samples.
And so, like everything in chemistry, and a lot of what we're starting to deal with in physics and quantum mechanics, everything is probabilistic. So one of the neutrons must have turned into a proton and that is what happened. And you might say, oh OK, so maybe-- let's see, let me make nitrogen magenta, right there-- so you might say, OK, maybe that half turns into nitrogen. And over 5,740 years, you determine that there's a 50% chance that any one of these carbon atoms will turn into a nitrogen atom. And we could keep going further into the future, and after every half-life, 5,740 years, we will have half of the carbon that we started. Now, if you look at it over a huge number of atoms. But after two more years, how many are we going to have? So this is t equals 3 I'm sorry, this is t equals 4 years.
And maybe not carbon-12, maybe we're talking about carbon-14 or something. And then nothing happens for a long time, a long time, and all of a sudden two more guys decay. And the atomic number defines the carbon, because it has six protons. If they say that it's half-life is 5,740 years, that means that if on day one we start off with 10 grams of pure carbon-14, after 5,740 years, half of this will have turned into nitrogen-14, by beta decay. What happens over that 5,740 years is that, probabilistically, some of these guys just start turning into nitrogen randomly, at random points. So if we go to another half-life, if we go another half-life from there, I had five grams of carbon-14. So now we have seven and a half grams of nitrogen-14. This exact atom, you just know that it had a 50% chance of turning into a nitrogen.
Now you could say, OK, what's the probability of any given molecule reacting in one second? But we're used to dealing with things on the macro level, on dealing with, you know, huge amounts of atoms. So I have a description, and we're going to hopefully get an intuition of what half-life means. And how does this half know that it must stay as carbon? So if you go back after a half-life, half of the atoms will now be nitrogen. Then all of a sudden you can use the law of large numbers and say, OK, on average, if each of those atoms must have had a 50% chance, and if I have gazillions of them, half of them will have turned into nitrogen. How much time, you know, x is decaying the whole time, how much time has passed?
I mean, maybe if we really got in detail on the configurations of the nucleus, maybe we could get a little bit better in terms of our probabilities, but we don't know what's going on inside of the nucleus, so all we can do is ascribe some probabilities to something reacting. And it does that by releasing an electron, which is also call a beta particle. And I've actually seen this drawn this way in some chemistry classes or physics classes, and my immediate question is how does this half know that it must turn into nitrogen? So that after 5,740 years, the half-life of carbon, a 50% chance that any of the guys that are carbon will turn to nitrogen. But we'll always have an infinitesimal amount of carbon. Let's say I'm just staring at one carbon atom. You know, I've got its nucleus, with its c-14. I mean, if you start approaching, you know, Avogadro's number or anything larger-- I erased that. After two years, how much are we going to have left? And then after two more years, I'll only have half of that left again.
However, radioisotope dating may not work so well in the future.After plants die or are consumed by other organisms, the incorporation of all carbon isotopes, including 14C, stops.Thereafter, the concentration (fraction) of 14C declines at a fixed exponential rate due to the radioactive decay of 14C. ) Comparing the remaining 14C fraction of a sample to that expected from atmospheric 14C allows us to estimate the age of the sample.Radiocarbon dating (usually referred to simply as carbon-14 dating) is a radiometric dating method.It uses the naturally occurring radioisotope carbon-14 (14C) to estimate the age of carbon-bearing materials up to about 58,000 to 62,000 years old.