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26-Jan-2020 14:09

So the proportion of carbon-14 inside living things is the same as the proportion of carbon-14 in the atmosphere at that time.But when we stop eating, or when plants stop photosynthesising, our carbon-14 levels no longer get topped up.And nuclear reactions have seen a leap in carbon-14 activity since 1945.Luckily for us we have a record of atmospheric carbon-14 levels for every one of the last 12,000 years.From the moment we die the proportion of carbon-14 compared to non-radioactive carbon-12 in what's left of our bodies starts to drop as it gradually turns to nitrogen.And the longer dead things lie around, the lower the carbon-14 levels get.The exact age of an unknown sample can never be known for sure, so short of discovering a time machine, 95 per cent accuracy is as good as it gets.Radiocarbon may not be perfect, but as any single 30-something can attest, no dating method is.

And when one of those energetic neutrons hits a nitrogen atom, the nitrogen spits out a proton.

So calculating the age range of a once-living sample involves measuring the 14C/12C ratio, and using this the known half-life to estimate the length of time since the sample died.



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