What is carbondating?

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kslanger's profile pic

kslanger | College Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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It’s important to first look at this from a high level, there are two words – carbon and dating.  Carbon is an element (the 6th element in the periodic table to be exact).  This element is the basis of ALL living things on earth. Dating, in this context, means to identify a specific timeframe.  So, when we combine them, it is the process of defining a time period around living matter.  When fossils are analyzed, carbon dating assists with identifying the timeframe in which the object lived. 

To dig a little deeper, carbon dating is a type of “radioactive” dating.  It’s been show that the radioactive half-life of a radioisotope is not affected by temperature, physical or chemical state, or any other environmental characteristics.  Therefore, they continue to decay at a rate that is predictable which assists in calculating the timeframes. 

I hope that helps!  I didn’t get into the specifics since you asked about the concept of carbon dating – if you have further questions regarding HOW it works, please post another question!

gsenviro's profile pic

gsenviro | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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carbon dating is a procedure used to determine the age of fossil samples. It is also known as radiocarbon dating because the method uses a radioactive isotope of carbon known as carbon 14 or C-14. 

The method is based on C-14. In the upper atmosphere, C-14 is constantly created by reaction of cosmic rays with nitrogen. This radiocarbon then combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide which is fixed into plants by photosynthesis. C-14 is also incorporated into animal bodies who eat the plants. During their life cycle, animals and plants exchange radiocarbon, but the process stops once they die. The amount of radiocarbon starts decreasing as a result of decay. Knowing the half-life of this decay (~5730 years) and the amount of radiocarbon remaining in the sample, we can calculate when the plant or animal died. 

Hope this helps.

answerer1's profile pic

answerer1 | eNotes Newbie

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Carbon dating is a variety of radioactive dating which is applicable only to matter which was once living and presumed to be in equilibrium with the atmosphere, taking in carbon dioxide from the air for photosynthesis.

Cosmic ray protons blast nuclei in the upper atmosphere, producing neutrons which in turn bombard nitrogen, the major constituent of the atmosphere. This neutron bombardment produces the radioactive isotope carbon-14. The radioactive carbon-14 combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and is incorporated into the cycle of living things.

The carbon-14 forms at a rate which appears to be constant, so that by measuring the radioactive emissions from once-living matter and comparing its activity with the equilibrium level of living things, a measurement of the time elapsed can be made.

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