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Although the number of carbon-14 atoms varies from one organism to another, the of carbon-14 atoms to carbon-12 atoms is basically constant—and roughly the same as the proportion found in the atmosphere.
Carbon-14 decays (loses its radioactivity, converting back to nitrogen-14) at a known rate; its half-life, or the time it takes for half a given number of carbon-14 atoms to decay, is about 5,730 years.
What did surprise me was the huge number of Web sites and books vigorously attacking the legitimacy of what I had thought was a fairly straightforward, uncontroversial test.
Apparently carbon dating is right up there with evolution in terms of the disdain it evokes from certain religious groups.
When an organism dies, it stops acquiring new carbon-14 atoms.
Given that the ratio of carbon-14 atoms to carbon-12 atoms in a living thing is a constant, one can determine the number of each in a sample of organic matter (using sensitive equipment to detect the amount of radiation remaining), and then do a little bit of math to determine how long it’s been since the organism expired.
For example, if a sample emits radiation indicating the presence of 10 carbon-14 atoms and we know from its mass that it originally must have contained 20, that means the plant or animal from which the sample was taken died about 5,730 years ago.
But these and other seeming sources of uncertainty have been seized upon by some very vocal groups of creationists as loopholes, allowing them to challenge the validity of carbon dating.High in the atmosphere, cosmic rays strike nitrogen atoms, producing a radioactive carbon isotope known as carbon-14 (or .Carbon-14, along with the more common, stable (nonradioactive) carbon isotopes carbon-12 and carbon-13, combine with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide.So for all practical purposes, carbon dating is useful only for samples up to about 50,000 years old (though this depends somewhat on the mass of the sample—and some advanced techniques can reliably measure carbon-14 levels low enough to indicate an age of 100,000 years).Thus, carbon dating would not be useful in, for example, assessing dinosaur bones.