Chemistry behind carbon dating
And we talk about the word isotope in the chemistry playlist. But this number up here can change depending on the number of neutrons you have. And every now and then-- and let's just be clear-- this isn't like a typical reaction. So instead of seven protons we now have six protons. And a proton that's just flying around, you could call that hydrogen 1. If it doesn't gain an electron, it's just a hydrogen ion, a positive ion, either way, or a hydrogen nucleus. And so this carbon-14, it's constantly being formed. I've just explained a mechanism where some of our body, even though carbon-12 is the most common isotope, some of our body, while we're living, gets made up of this carbon-14 thing. So carbon by definition has six protons, but the typical isotope, the most common isotope of carbon is carbon-12. And then that carbon dioxide gets absorbed into the rest of the atmosphere, into our oceans. When people talk about carbon fixation, they're really talking about using mainly light energy from the sun to take gaseous carbon and turn it into actual kind of organic tissue.Archaeologists use the exponential, radioactive decay of carbon 14 to estimate the death dates of organic material.
So with that said, let's go back to the question of how do we know if one of these guys are going to decay in some way. That, you know, maybe this guy will decay this second. Remember, isotopes, if there's carbon, can come in 12, with an atomic mass number of 12, or with 14, or I mean, there's different isotopes of different elements. So the carbon-14 version, or this isotope of carbon, let's say we start with 10 grams. Well we said that during a half-life, 5,740 years in the case of carbon-14-- all different elements have a different half-life, if they're radioactive-- over 5,740 years there's a 50%-- and if I just look at any one atom-- there's a 50% chance it'll decay. Now after another half-life-- you can ignore all my little, actually let me erase some of this up here. So we'll have even more conversion into nitrogen-14. So now we're only left with 2.5 grams of c-14. Well we have another two and a half went to nitrogen. So after one half-life, if you're just looking at one atom after 5,740 years, you don't know whether this turned into a nitrogen or not. At high geomagnetic latitudes, the carbon-14 spreads evenly throughout the atmosphere and reacts with oxygen to form carbon dioxide.Carbon dioxide also permeates the oceans, dissolving in the water.But what's interesting is as soon as you die and you're not ingesting anymore plants, or breathing from the atmosphere if you are a plant, or fixing from the atmosphere. Once a plant dies, it's no longer taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into new tissue. And this carbon-14 does this decay at a specific rate. And you say, hey, that bone has one half the carbon-14 of all the living things that you see right now.And then you can use that rate to actually determine how long ago that thing must've died. It would be a pretty reasonable estimate to say, well, that thing must be 5,730 years old.