Radiocarbon Dating in Science, What Does It Mean?

Radiocarbon Dating in Science, What Does It Mean?

Radiocarbon dating is mentioned all the time in science, but what does it mean? Most people do not  know. Well, to first understand radiocarbon dating, one has to comprehend the meaning of the word “isotope.” It is what scientists call two or more forms of the same component. If an individual looks at the atoms of two different isotopes, he or she will discover there are the same numbers of protons but a different number of neutrons within the nucleus of the atoms.

This means that there is a difference in the comparative atomic masses of two isotopes, but they each still have the same chemical properties. Basically, a carbon atom is a carbon atom is a carbon atom, and so on.

From all over the galaxy and the universe, from all the stars and our sun, from black holes, pulsars and more, it is found that space is bombarded with all types of high-energy elements that are known as cosmic rays These cosmic rays assault the Earth’s atmosphere and create an unstable isotope known as carbon-14. This isotope is what allows scientists to learn the ages of specimens that were once alive going back to ancient times.

Radiocarbon dating makes use of the isotopes of carbon. Radiocarbon dating depends on the two carbon isotopes carbon-12 and carbon-14. Scientists examine the ratio of both of these isotopes inside a sample they are studying. The majority of carbon that is on Earth exists in the state of the stable carbon-12, along with a very tiny amount being carbon-13. Carbon-14, however, is an extremely unstable isotope that eventually decays at a specific rate, and becomes carbon-12.

Carbon-14 is considered a radioactive carbon isotope. There is an almost near continual level of carbon-14 to carbon-12 percentage that stays in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Because of this, any living creatures at the bottom of the food chain that photosynthesize, such as algae, make use of carbon. They have the exact same carbon-14 to carbon-12 ratio that is in the atmosphere, so this percentage gets moved up all the way to the top of the food chain.

But when gas exchanges stop for some reason, be it only a certain body part like a tooth or a bone, or when the whole creature dies, the carbon-14 to carbon-12 ratio starts to decrease. This is when the extremely unstable carbon-14 begins to break down to carbon-12 at a stable rate.

To explain radiocarbon dating in science, and what it means, this is the basic explanation behind radiocarbon dating. Scientists measure the ratio of carbon isotopes to figure out how far back a biological specimen was alive or active.

There is only one major variation that has happened in carbon-14 dating that scientists know of. That was when nuclear scientists started detonating nuclear weapons out in the open atmosphere, back in the middle of the 20th century. Because of that, nuclear tests are now always performed underground.

The majority of radiocarbon dating done in this day and time happens with an accelerator mass spectrometer. This is an instrument that specifically counts the numbers of carbon-12 and carbon-14 isotopes in various samples.

Radiocarbon dating is used by scientists in order to figure out what the ages are of various biological species. This type of dating has been used on objects that are as old as 62,000 years. Radiocarbon dating is mentioned all the time in science, and what does it mean? First, start with the meaning of the word “isotope.”

By Kimberly Ruble

Sources:

EarthSky News

The Dispatch

The Huffington Post

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