When news is announced on the discovery of an archaeological find, we often hear about how the age of the sample was determined using radiocarbon dating, otherwise simply known as carbon dating. Deemed the gold standard of archaeology, the method was developed in the late s and is based on the idea that radiocarbon carbon 14 is being constantly created in the atmosphere by cosmic rays which then combine with atmospheric oxygen to form CO2, which is then incorporated into plants during photosynthesis. When the plant or animal that consumed the foliage dies, it stops exchanging carbon with the environment and from there on in it is simply a case of measuring how much carbon 14 has been emitted, giving its age. But new research conducted by Cornell University could be about to throw the field of archaeology on its head with the claim that there could be a number of inaccuracies in commonly accepted carbon dating standards.
Seventy years ago, American chemist Willard Libby devised an ingenious method for dating organic materials. His technique, known as carbon dating, revolutionized the field of archaeology. Now researchers could accurately calculate the age of any object made of organic materials by observing how much of a certain form of carbon remained, and then calculating backwards to determine when the plant or animal that the material came from had died. An isotope is a form of an element with a certain number of neutrons, which are the subatomic particles found in the nucleus of an atom that have no charge. While the number of protons and electrons in an atom determine what element it is, the number of neutrons can vary widely between different atoms of the same element.
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