Radiocarbon dating revolutions in understanding
Radiocarbon dating has undergone a number of ‘revolutions’ in the past 50 years.
Different elements in this life cycle lead to complications, or subtleties that need to be understood if we wish to develop high-resolution chronologies.C, or radiocarbon, is a radioactive isotope of carbon with an atomic nucleus containing 6 protons and 8 neutrons.Its presence in organic materials is the basis of the radiocarbon dating method pioneered by Willard Libby and colleagues (1949) to date archaeological, geological and hydrogeological samples.Carbon-14 was discovered on 27 February 1940, by Martin Kamen and Sam Ruben at the University of California Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, California.Its existence had been suggested by Franz Kurie in 1934. The primary natural source of carbon-14 on Earth is cosmic ray action on nitrogen in the atmosphere, and it is therefore a cosmogenic nuclide.However, open-air nuclear testing between 1955–1980 contributed to this pool.
The different isotopes of carbon do not differ appreciably in their chemical properties.
This is used in chemical and biological research, in a technique called carbon labeling: carbon-14 atoms can be used to replace nonradioactive carbon, in order to trace chemical and biochemical reactions involving carbon atoms from any given organic compound.
Most of the changes that have influenced radiocarbon dating are revolutions in understanding of the natural world in disparate academic disciplines.
More than ever, it is necessary for users of radiocarbon to understand and engage with the science that underlies the method.
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