It's just a little section of the surface of the Earth. And that carbon-14 that you did have at you're death is going to decay via beta decay-- and we learned about this-- back into nitrogen-14. So it'll decay back into nitrogen-14, and in beta decay you emit an electron and an electron anti-neutrino. But essentially what you have happening here is you have one of the neutrons is turning into a proton and emitting this stuff in the process. So I just said while you're living you have kind of straight-up carbon-14. What it's essentially saying is any given carbon-14 atom has a 50% chance of decaying into nitrogen-14 in 5,730 years.
And it has seven protons, and it also has seven neutrons. So the different versions of a given element, those are each called isotopes. So anyway, we have our atmosphere, and then coming from our sun, we have what's commonly called cosmic rays, but they're actually not rays. You can view them as just single protons, which is the same thing as a hydrogen nucleus. But every now and then one of those neutrons will bump into one of the nitrogen-14's in just the right way so that it bumps off one of the protons in the nitrogen and essentially replaces that proton with itself. But this number 14 doesn't go down to 13 because it replaces it with itself. And now since it only has six protons, this is no longer nitrogen, by definition. And that proton that was bumped off just kind of gets emitted. But this process-- and once again, it's not a typical process, but it happens every now and then-- this is how carbon-14 forms. You can essentially view it as a nitrogen-14 where one of the protons is replaced with a neutron. It makes its way into oceans-- it's already in the air, but it completely mixes through the whole atmosphere-- and the air. And plants are really just made out of that fixed carbon, that carbon that was taken in gaseous form and put into, I guess you could say, into kind of a solid form, put it into a living form. It gets put into plants, and then it gets put into the things that eat the plants. Well, the interesting thing is the only time you can take in this carbon-14 is while you're alive, while you're eating new things.
Carbon dating is reliable within certain parameters but certainly not infallible.
When testing an object using radiocarbon dating, several factors have to be considered: First, carbon dating only works on matter that was once alive, and it only determines the approximate date of death for that sample.
And carbon-14 is constantly doing this decay thing. So over the course of 5,730 years, roughly half of them will have decayed. Well, if you know that all living things have a certain proportion of carbon-14 in their tissue, as kind of part of what makes them up, and then if you were to find some bone-- let's just say find some bone right here that you dig it up on some type of archaeology dig.
All of these processes are carefully controlled at ORAU through our quality management system.
The unit uses some thirty different pre-treatment methods for samples of different kinds and in different states of preservation.
The methods range from simple acid/base/acid treatments to separation of amino acids from proteins using HPLC.
Once material has been purified for radiocarbon dating, the samples are combusted and their stable isotopes analysed. The experience of the Unit in stable isotope work enables us to use both the stable isotope ratios (δN) and the ratios of carbon to nitrogen to look for signs of impurities.