Radio carbon dating for dummies
The radiocarbon age of a certain sample of unknown age can be determined by measuring its carbon 14 content and comparing the result to the carbon 14 activity in modern and background samples.
The principal modern standard used by radiocarbon dating labs was the Oxalic Acid I obtained from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland. Around 95% of the radiocarbon activity of Oxalic Acid I is equal to the measured radiocarbon activity of the absolute radiocarbon standard—a wood in 1890 unaffected by fossil fuel effects.
The method does not count beta particles but the number of carbon atoms present in the sample and the proportion of the isotopes. Samples that have been radiocarbon dated since the inception of the method include charcoal, wood, twigs, seeds, bones, shells, leather, peat, lake mud, soil, hair, pottery, pollen, wall paintings, corals, blood residues, fabrics, paper or parchment, resins, and water, among others.
Physical and chemical pretreatments are done on these materials to remove possible contaminants before they are analyzed for their radiocarbon content.
For those of you curious as to how scientists figure out the age of ancient artifacts and skeletons, I have put together a simple little article on why carbon dating works.
A vial with a sample is passed between two photomultipliers, and only when both devices register the flash of light that a count is made.
A radiocarbon measurement is termed a conventional radiocarbon age (CRA).
The CRA conventions include (a) usage of the Libby half-life, (b) usage of Oxalic Acid I or II or any appropriate secondary standard as the modern radiocarbon standard, (c) correction for sample isotopic fractionation to a normalized or base value of -25.0 per mille relative to the ratio of carbon 12/carbon 13 in the carbonate standard VPDB – Cretaceous belemnite formation at Peedee in South Carolina, (d) zero BP (Before Present) is defined as AD 1950, and (e) the assumption that global radiocarbon levels are constant.
Over the years, other secondary radiocarbon standards have been made.
Radiocarbon activity of materials in the background is also determined to remove its contribution from results obtained during a sample analysis.
When they die, they stop exchanging carbon with the biosphere and their carbon 14 content then starts to decrease at a rate determined by the law of radioactive decay.