Radiocarbon Dating: Merits And Drawbacks. Essay

2561 words - 10 pages

The method of radiocarbon dating and its potential usefulness was discovered and developed by a team of scientists led by the late Dr. Willard Libby. He later received a Nobel Peace Prize for chemistry. Since the formation and calibration of radiocarbon dating, it has risen to become the field standard for dating all carbon containing substances. Radiocarbon dating has lead to the development of other radioisotope dating methods, such as potassium-argon and uranium-238. Because of its relatively short half-life, radiocarbon dating has been most useful to archaeology (geology requiring a much larger time span, hence the development of uranium-238 dating).Because radiocarbon dating is the cornerstone of conventional views of archaeological pre-history, it has been targeted by those who do not hold true to conventional theory. Most notable are the Christian creationists who believe the world is no more than 6,000 years old. A variety of attacks have been designed to try to discredit radiocarbon dating: inconstant levels of atmospheric radiocarbon, false interpretations, etc. When one examines these arguments, however, it becomes clear that despite these apparent problems, radiocarbon dating is accurate.In order to understand the problems and solutions that apply to radiocarbon dating, one must first understand the process by which radiocarbon dating works. The process of radiocarbon dating is a fairly simple one understood in most high school chemistry classes. Nitrogen in the upper atmosphere is bombarded by cosmic rays and stray neutrons then combine with the nitrogen and knock off a proton, forming the radioactive isotope carbon-14, or radiocarbon. The radiocarbon then forms 14CO2 or carbon-14 dioxide. Plants and animals are always inhaling carbon dioxide and occasionally some carbon-14 dioxide slips in. Since plants and animals respire constantly, the ratio of carbon dioxide/carbon-14 dioxide is the same as that in the atmosphere until the day something dies. When a plant or animal dies it stops respiring and the radiocarbon is no longer replenished, then the radiocarbon that was there beta decays into stable nitrogen. This gives us a clock that starts ticking the moment something dies. The half-life of a radioactive substance is defined as the time it takes for a set amount of radioactive material (for example, 1g of radiocarbon) to decay to half the original amount (1/2g of radiocarbon). The half-life of radiocarbon is about 5568 years; this means that a 1g sample would take about 5568 years to decay to 1/2g of radiocarbon. It is incredibly fortunate that it is carbon, because carbon is present in a variety of substances including, bone, soil, iron, fabrics, and many other materials.Having said that there are some inherent problems with radiocarbon dating. Radiocarbon decays relatively quickly, rendering the method useless after about 60,000 years. Because there is only one radiocarbon atom for every 1,000,000,000,000 normal carbon atoms a...

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