Radiocarbon dating is one of the best known archaeological dating techniques available to scientists, and the many people in the general public have at least heard of it. But there are many misconceptions about how radiocarbon works and how reliable a technique it is. Radiocarbon dating was invented in the s by the American chemist Willard F. Libby and a few of his students at the University of Chicago: in , he won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the invention.
How Carbon-14 Dating Works
Carbon Dating Water - The freshwater reservoir effect in radiocarbon dating
The carbon clock is getting reset. Climate records from a Japanese lake are set to improve the accuracy of the dating technique, which could help to shed light on archaeological mysteries such as why Neanderthals became extinct. Carbon dating is used to work out the age of organic material — in effect, any living thing. The technique hinges on carbon, a radioactive isotope of the element that, unlike other more stable forms of carbon, decays away at a steady rate. Organisms capture a certain amount of carbon from the atmosphere when they are alive. By measuring the ratio of the radio isotope to non-radioactive carbon, the amount of carbon decay can be worked out, thereby giving an age for the specimen in question. But that assumes that the amount of carbon in the atmosphere was constant — any variation would speed up or slow down the clock.
Danish Stone Age settlements may turn out to be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years younger than we thought. In sites where people ate fish, we might see errors in the Carbon dating of clay vessels. This is due to the fact that fish contain less of the radioactive substance Carbon 14 if they have lived in hard water.
When researchers find a bone or artifact, how do they know how old it is? While there are a number of answers to that question, most of which depend largely on the age and surroundings of the item, carbon dating is surely one of the most important. The physics, chemistry, and biology, behind carbon dating is absolutely fascinating and worth knowing.