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23 Dec

Radiocarbon dating is the use of a naturally occurring isotope of carbon in radiometric dating to determine the age of organic materials.

Carbon has two stable isotopes: carbon-12 (C has a half-life of just under 6000 years, and so would have long ago vanished from the earth, were it not for its constant formation by cosmic ray impacts on nitrogen in the earth's atmosphere.

Carbon-14, or radiocarbon—which is now widely used to date organic material—was discovered 75 years ago on February 27 by Martin Kamen and Sam Rubin at the UC-Berkeley Radiation Lab.

Franz Kurie had previously theorized the existence of this isotope of carbon, which has 6 protons and 8 neutrons.

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An expert on radiation, Libby gets to the heart of the matter in this article on radiocarbon dating: “(1) Cosmic rays make living things radioactive to a certain level fixed by the environment through the food eaten. Taylor, who calls radiocarbon dating revolutionary, summarized a half-century of advances made in radiocarbon dating.

In Nyerup's time, archaeologists could date the past only by using recorded histories, which in Europe were based mainly on the Egyptian calendar.

Radiocarbon dating was invented in the late 1940s, and within a few decades, it was discovered that while the dates retrieved from the method have a sound, repeatable progression, they are not a one-to-one match with calendar years.

Most importantly, researchers discovered that radiocarbon dates are affected by the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, which has fluctuated greatly in the past for both natural and human-caused reasons (such as the invention of iron smelting, the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the combustion engine).

The problem is, of course, that CE and BCE still use the putative date of the birth of Christ as the reference points for its numbering system: the two years 1 BCE, 1 CE are equivalent to 1 BC, 1 AD.