Seventy years ago, American chemist Willard Libby devised an ingenious method for dating organic materials.
His technique, known as carbon dating, revolutionized the field of archaeology. Now researchers could accurately calculate the age of any object made of organic materials by observing how much of a certain form of carbon remained, and then calculating backwards to determine when the plant or animal that the material came from had died.
An isotope is a form of an element with a certain number of neutrons, which are the subatomic particles found in the nucleus of an atom that have no charge.
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While the number of protons and electrons in an atom determine what element it is, the number of neutrons can vary widely between different atoms of the same element. Nearly 99 percent of all carbon on Earth is Carbon, meaning each atom has 12 neutrons in its nucleus.
The shirt you're wearing, the carbon dioxide you inhale and the animals and plants you eat are all formed mostly of Carbon Carbon is a stable isotope, meaning its amount in any material remains the same year-after-year, century-after-century. Libby's groundbreaking radiocarbon dating technique instead looked at a much more rare isotope of carbon: Unlike Carbon, this isotope of carbon is unstable, and its atoms decay into an isotope of nitrogen over a period of thousands of years.
New Carbon is produced at a steady rate in Earth's upper atmosphere, however, as the Sun's rays strike nitrogen atoms.
Radiocarbon dating exploits this contrast between a stable and unstable carbon isotope. During its lifetime, a plant is constantly taking in carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.
Animals, in turn, consume this carbon when they eat plants, and the carbon spreads through the food cycle. This carbon comprises a steady ratio of Carbon and Carbon When these plants and animals die, they cease taking in carbon. From that point forward, the amount of Carbon in materials left over from the plant or animal will decrease over time, while the amount of Carbon will remain unchanged.
To radiocarbon date an organic material, a scientist can measure the ratio of remaining Carbon to the unchanged Carbon to see how long it has been since the material's source died. Advancing technology has allowed radiocarbon dating to become accurate to within just a few decades in many cases.
Carbon dating is a brilliant way for archaeologists to take advantage of the natural ways that atoms decay. Unfortunately, humans are on the verge of messing things up.
The slow, steady process of Carbon creation in the upper atmosphere has been dwarfed in the past centuries by humans spewing carbon from fossil fuels into the air.
Since fossil fuels are millions of years old, they no longer contain any measurable amount of Carbon Thus, as millions of tons of Carbon are pushed into the atmosphere, the steady ratio of these two isotopes is being disrupted. In a study published last yearImperial College London physicist Heather Graven pointed out how these extra carbon emissions will skew radiocarbon dating. Although Carbon comprises just over 1 percent of Earth's atmosphere, plants take up its larger, heavier atoms at a much lower rate than Carbon during photosynthesis.
Thus Carbon is found in very low levels in the fossil fuels produced from plants and the animals that eat them. In other words, burning these fossil fuels dwarfs the atmospheric levels of Carbon, too.
By measuring whether these levels of Carbon are skewed in an object being radiocarbon dated, future scientists would be able to then know if the object's levels of Carbon have been skewed by fossil fuel emissions.