How Can Radiocarbon Dating Tell Us How Old Anything Is?

Radiocarbon dating won’t help you to determine the age of anything that is still alive, such as a twelve-year-old posing as a twenty-five-year-old in an Internet chat room. It’s is useful for determining the ages of plant or animal matter that died anywhere from around five hundred to fifty thousand years ago.

Ever since its invention by University of Chicago chemistry professor Willard F. Libby (1908–1980) in the 1950s (he received a Nobel Prize for it in 1960), the radiocarbon dating technique has been an extremely powerful research tool in archaeology, oceanography and several other branches of science.

In order for radiocarbon dating to tell us how old an object is, the object must contain some organic carbon, meaning carbon that was once part of a living plant or animal. The radiocarbon dating method tells us how long ago it lived, or more precisely (as we’ll see), how long ago it died.

Radiocarbon tests can be done on such materials as wood, bone, charcoal from an ancient campfire or even the linen used to wrap a mummy, because linen is made from fibers of the flax plant.

Carbon is the one chemical element that every living thing contains in its assortment of biochemicals, in its proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, hormones, enzymes and so on. In fact, the chemistry of carbon-based chemicals is called “organic chemistry” because it was at one time believed that the only place that these chemicals existed was in living organisms. Today, we know that we can make all sorts of carbon-based “organic” chemicals from petroleum without having to get them from plants or animals.

But the carbon in living things does differ in one important way from the carbon in nonliving materials such as coal, petroleum and minerals. “Living” carbon contains a small amount of a certain kind of carbon atom known as carbon-14, whereas “dead” carbon contains only carbon-12 and carbon13 atoms. The three different kinds of carbon atoms are called isotopes of carbon; they all behave the same chemically, but they have slightly different weights, or, properly speaking, different masses.

What’s unique about the carbon-14 atoms, besides their mass, is that they are radioactive. That is, they are unstable and tend to disintegrate,  break down, by shooting out subatomic particles: so-called beta particles. All living things are therefore slightly radioactive, owing to their content of carbon-14. Yes, including you and me; we’re all radioactive. A typical 150-pound person contains a million billion carbon-14 atoms that are shooting off 200,000 beta particles every minute!

You are radioactive.

If the world’s nonliving carbon isn’t radioactive, where do living organisms get their carbon-14? And what happens to it when the organisms die? The answers to those questions is where the radiocarbon story really gets exciting. Professor Libby, working right down the hall from my laboratory at the University of Chicago, was able to recognize the relationships among a series of seemingly unconnected natural phenomena that, when put together, gave us an ingenious method for looking into our ancient past and into the history of our entire planet. Follow this sequence of events.

  1. Carbon-14 is continuously being manufactured in the atmosphere by cosmic rays, those high-energy subatomic particles that are shooting through our solar system in all directions at virtually the speed of light. (Some of them come from the sun, but the rest come from outer space.) When these cosmic particles hit Earth’s atmosphere, some of them crash into nitrogen atoms, converting them into atoms of carbon-14. The carbon-14 atoms join with oxygen to become carbon dioxide gas, which mixes thoroughly around in the atmosphere because of winds. So the entire atmosphere has a certain amount of carbon-14 in it, in the chemical form of carbon dioxide. This process has been going on for eons, and the carbon-14 in the atmosphere has settled into a fixed amount.
  2. The radioactive carbon dioxide is breathed in by plants on Earth’s surface and used to manufacture their own plant chemicals. (You know, of course, that plants take in carbon dioxide to use in photosynthesis.) All plants on Earth therefore contain carbon-14. They all wind up with about 1 atom of carbon-14 for every 750 billion atoms of carbon that they contain.
  3. For as long as a plant is alive, it continues the process of taking in atmospheric carbon dioxide, thus maintaining its 1-in-750-billion atom ratio of carbon-14.
  4. As soon as the plant dies it stops breathing in carbon dioxide and its accumulation of carbon-14 atoms, no longer being replenished by the atmosphere, begins to diminish by radioactive disintegration. As time goes by, then, there are fewer and fewer carbon-14 atoms remaining in the dead plant material.
  5. We know the exact rate at which a number of carbon-14 atoms will diminish by radioactive disintegration (visit the Nitpicker’s Corner). So if wecount how many of them are left in some old plant material, we can calculate how much time has gone by since it had its full complement of 1 in 750 billion and, hence, how long ago the plant died. In the case of a piece of wood, for example, we will know when the tree was cut down; in the case of a mummy, we can measure its linen wrapping and calculate when the flax plant was harvested to make the linen, and so on. Neat, huh?

But what about animal relics such as bones and leather? How can we tell when an animal lived and died? Well, animals eat plants. Or else they eat animals that have eaten plants. Or in the case of human animals, both. So the carbon atoms that animals eat and from which they manufacture their own life chemicals have the same ratio of carbon-14 atoms as the plants do: 1 out of every 750 billion. When the animal dies it stops eating and exchanging carbon atoms with its surroundings, and its load of carbon-14 begins to diminish in its precisely known way. By measuring how much carbon-14 remains today, we can calculate how much time has elapsed since the relic was part of a living animal.

There have been several spectacular applications of radio-carbon dating in the past few decades. One of these was the dating of the Dead Sea

Scrolls, a collection of some eight hundred manuscripts that were hidden in a series of caves on the coast of the Red Sea, ten miles east of Jerusalem, by Essene Jews around 68 B.C. They were discovered by Bedouin Arabs between 1947 and 1956. The linen-wrapped leather scrolls contain authentic, handwritten portions of the Old Testament that were determined by radiocarbon dating to have been written around 100 B.C.

Another triumph of radiocarbon dating was the finding that the Shroud of Turin, believed by some to be the burial cloth of Jesus, is a medieval fake concocted sometime between 1260 and 1390 A.D., which is very A.D. indeed. This unambiguous scientific result, obtained independently in 1988 by three laboratories in Zurich, Oxford and Arizona, continues to be rejected by those who prefer to believe what they prefer to believe.