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Dating of objects by the use of c 14

Organisms capture a certain amount of carbon-14 from the atmosphere when they are alive.By measuring the ratio of the radio isotope to non-radioactive carbon, the amount of carbon-14 decay can be worked out, thereby giving an age for the specimen in question.

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The clock was initially calibrated by dating objects of known age such as Egyptian mummies and bread from Pompeii; work that won Willard Libby the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.The recalibrated clock won’t force archaeologists to abandon old measurements wholesale, says Bronk Ramsey, but it could help to narrow the window of key events in human history.“If you’re trying to look at archaeological sites at the order of 30,000 or 40,000 years ago, the ages may shift by only a few hundred years but that may be significant in putting them before or after changes in climate,” he says.The researchers collected roughly 70-metre core samples from the lake and painstakingly counted the layers to come up with a direct record stretching back 52,000 years.Preserved leaves in the cores — “they look fresh as if they’ve fallen very recently”, Bronk Ramsey says — yielded 651 carbon dates that could be compared to the calendar dates of the sediment they were found in.But even he “realized that there probably would be variation”, says Christopher Bronk Ramsey, a geochronologist at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the latest work, published today in Science.

Various geologic, atmospheric and solar processes can influence atmospheric carbon-14 levels.

At any particular time all living organisms have approximately the same ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 14 in their tissues.

When an organism dies it ceases to replenish carbon in its tissues and the decay of carbon 14 to nitrogen 14 changes the ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 14.

The stable form of carbon is carbon 12 and the radioactive isotope carbon 14 decays over time into nitrogen 14 and other particles.

Carbon is naturally in all living organisms and is replenished in the tissues by eating other organisms or by breathing air that contains carbon.

The approximate time since the organism died can be worked out by measuring the amount of carbon-14 left in its remains compared to the amount in living organisms.