In living organisms, which are always taking in carbon, the levels of carbon 14 likewise stay constant.But in a dead organism, no new carbon is coming in, and its carbon 14 gradually begins to decay.Carbon dating is used to determine the age of biological artifacts up to 50,000 years old.
Carbon dating made easy
Back in the 1940s, the American chemist Willard Libby used this fact to determine the ages of organisms long dead.
Most carbon atoms have six protons and six neutrons in their nuclei and are called carbon 12. But a tiny percentage of carbon is made of carbon 14, or radiocarbon, which has six protons and eight neutrons and is not stable: half of any sample of it decays into other atoms after 5,700 years.
A form of radiometric dating used to determine the age of organic remains in ancient objects, such as archaeological specimens, on the basis of the half-life of carbon-14 and a comparison between the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-14 in a sample of the remains to the known ratio in living organisms. A technique for measuring the age of organic remains based on the rate of decay of carbon 14.
The carbon 14 present in an organism at the time of its death decays at a steady rate, and so the age of the remains can be calculated from the amount of carbon 14 that is left. The cells of all living things contain carbon atoms that they take in from their environment.
Radiocarbon dating is especially good for determining the age of sites occupied within the last 26,000 years or so (but has the potential for sites over 50,000), can be used on carbon-based materials (organic or inorganic), and can be accurate to within ±30-50 years.