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Radiocarbon Dating

By Amigos IAS

Why is it in the news?

  • Radiocarbon dating brought the first verifiable way to keep time to many fields of science, significantly transforming them.

 More about Radiocarbon Dating

  • Radiocarbon dating is a method used to determine the age of organic materials by measuring the amount of carbon-14, an isotope of carbon.
  • Carbon-14 is created in the Earth’s atmosphere when cosmic rays interact with nitrogen-14, producing carbon-14. This process is continuous due to cosmic rays continually passing through the atmosphere. Carbon-14 combines with atmospheric oxygen to form radioactive carbon dioxide, which enters the bodies of plants, animals, and other biomass through the carbon cycle.
  • In the early 1940s, chemists Martin Kamen and Sam Ruben synthesized carbon-14 in the lab, discovering its relatively long half-life of around 5,000 years. Further, Willard Libby proposed using carbon-14 to date organic materials.

 Radiocarbon Dating Process

  • Libby assumed that the concentration of carbon-14 in the Earth’s atmosphere remains constant over thousands of years, and carbon-14 can diffuse into various ecosystems, maintaining equilibrium.
  • When an organism dies, it no longer replenishes carbon-14 through activities like breathing and consuming food. The concentration of carbon-14 in the organism decreases over time through radioactive decay.
  • Radiocarbon dating measures the remaining carbon-14 in a sample, allowing scientists to calculate how long ago the organism died. The method was validated by dating objects with known ages.

 Tools of Radiocarbon Dating

  • Libby used a Geiger counter to study radioactive decay. It detects radiation emitted during decay, and Libby’s team developed the “anti-coincidence counter” to enhance precision.
  • Modern radiocarbon dating utilizes sophisticated methods like Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS), which can analyze tiny organic samples. AMS accelerates ions, making isotopes more separable.


  • Radiocarbon dating revolutionized archaeology and geology, providing the first objective dating method for organic remains.
  • It allowed dating archaeological sites, comparing ages of objects, and exploring human history, migration patterns, civilizations’ rise and fall, language evolution, and climate changes.
  • In India, radiocarbon dating has been used to date objects from temples and mosques.


  • Ongoing research aims to refine the technique. In 2018, deviations in the radiocarbon cycle were reported, potentially affecting dating accuracy for certain periods. In 2020, researchers proposed improvements to increase the time resolution of radiocarbon dating, enhancing its precision within specific timeframes.

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