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Radiocarbon Dating

Updated on August 25, 2012
Willard Libby
Willard Libby

The Discovery


Radiocarbon Dating was found by American chemist Willard Libby in 1949. Since then, it has been used widely as a dating method I archaeology.


The Underlying Concept


The atmosphere contains a fixed ratio of Carbon-12 [C-12: Ordinary Carbon] and Carbon-14[C-14: Radioactive isotope of Carbon]. C-14 is formed by the effect of cosmic radiation on Nitrogen in the atmosphere.

Now plants absorb C-14 in the atmosphere through their intake of Carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. This C-14 passes on to animals as they feed off plants and other animals.

This ingestion of C-14 stops when the animal or plant dies after which the radio-isotope remaining in the physical structure if the organism begins to disintegrate at the rate of one half every 5730 years.



This implies that after 5730 years the concentration of C-14 left in the structure will become half of the original concentration at the time of death. This phenomenon is known as the half life of a radio-isotope.



By measuring the amount of C-14 left in the body, scientists can find out when it died or how old it is.

This method is used to date many organic materials like wood, charcoal, bones and shells.


A proper Carbon Dating Lab
A proper Carbon Dating Lab

An Approximate Method


The C-14 method provides only approximate results like all other dating methods and a standard error margin called STANDARD DEVIATION is calculated. This implies that the dates are accompanied by a +/- factor.

For example let’s have a look at the following date: 2500 +/- 100 BP

This means we have a range between 2400 BP to 2600 BP

Here “ BP” refers to BEFORE PRESENT and the year 1950 which introduced radiocarbon dating is taken as the base line or the first year or PRESENT for further calculations.


High Carbon Content
High Carbon Content


Archaeologists sometimes calculate the mean of multiple dates to lower the value of the standard deviation and reach a more precise figure.




Miscalculations


Sometimes the results which are found are way too wrong. This may happen from contamination of the sample or from procedural errors.


Tree Rings
Tree Rings

Calibration Discrepancies


Over the years the amount of C-14 produced in the atmosphere has not been constant. Also, there have been notable differences between the results obtained by C-14 dating and other methods like the Tree-rings Dating Method.

Due to these reasons, it has been made clear that some corrections are needed while converting Radiocarbon dates to Christian Calendar dates.

Some archaeologists prefer to publish uncalibrated dates due to the ongoing debates over calibration.


However, certain calibration tables have been more or less accepted by some scholars.


A Calibration Table
A Calibration Table

The Simultaneous Significance and Dilemma of the Method


Radiocarbon dates have made a dramatic difference to our understanding of Chronology of Ancient Cultures. But, different books often show different Radiocarbon Dates.

Why does this happen?

One answer could be the ongoing debates over calibration.

But the profound reason is the varied interpretation and judgment involved while using these dates. A doubt arises when a string of dates become available for one site. Therefore, confusion arises regarding which date to use.

Hence, there are choices to be made in the use of Radiocarbon dates.

How an archaeologist interprets and presents these dates depends on his/her understanding of the relative dating and history of various cultures.


An Introduction To Radiocarbon Dating

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    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 4 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Hahaha Debbie.... glad to know you had fun.... science is always fun...

      I hope you are good

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 4 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Hi Sue.... glad you found this interesting enough :)

      Thanks so much

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 4 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      Rahul what a great lesson here. I feel like I have been back to school.. I love it......Look how smart you are my son.. I am so proud of you..

      so good to see you. I know you have been working and studying hard.

      Many blessings my sweet son

      Debbie

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      Sueswan 4 years ago

      Hi Rahul

      I am fascinated and skeptical at the same time.

      Voted up, awesome and sharing

      Take care :)

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      This is a great bit of information... here... Thank you so much...

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      zuma 5 years ago

      of 100 decayed K-40 atoms become argon-40, and only one of every 10,000 potassium atoms is the K-40 isotope; fortunately, potassium is one of the most abundant minerals on the Earth’s surface.)

      The phrase, 11 of 1000 decayed K-40 atoms become argon-40, as mentioned above implies the immediate transformation from K-40 to argon-40. As there is an immediate transformation from K-40 to argon-40 despite the amount is small as 11 out of 1000 decayed K-40, the reliability of radiometric dating method is in question. This is by virtue of it is mentioned that it would take a half life (or 1.25 billion years) for K-40 to turn up to be argon-40 and yet in reality it would take an immediate effect for the transformation. Even if one would suggest that 11 out of 1000 would turn up to be argon-40 and would take 1.25 billion years to process the balance of 989 (1000-11) atoms, how could the scientists account for 11 to be immediate and the balance of 989 atoms to 1.25 billion years not proportionally?

      f)Samarium-147 (Parent Isotope) to Neodymium-143 (Daughter Isotope):

      The following is the extract from the 6th paragraph from the website address, http://www.chemicool.com/elements/samarium.html:

      (It wasn’t until 1885 that Carl Auer von Welsbach established that ‘didymium’ was actually composed of two distinct, new elements: neodymium and praseodymium.)

      The above extract mentions that didymium consists of neodymium and praseodymium and yet didymium was found in Samarium. With the discovery, they conclude that Samarium could turn up to be Neodymium in 106 billion years. Their conclusion that Samarium could turn up to be Neodymium is not based on seeing the physical transformation from one to another, but the substance, Neodymium, was found in Samarium. That has caused us in doubt about the reliability of radiometric dating method.

      Could Samarium be able to isolate itself in the air without influence? No, it could not since the website address, http://www.elementsales.com/re_exp/index.htm, shows the immediate chemical reaction upon Samarium when it has contacted with air. The following is the extract from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samarium:

      [Samarium ( /səˈmɛəriəm/ sə-MAIR-ee-əm) is a chemical element with symbol Sm and atomic number 62. It is a moderately hard silvery metal which readily oxidizes in air. Being a typical member of the lanthanide series, samarium usually assumes the oxidation state +3. Compounds of samarium(II) are also known, most notably monoxide SmO, monochalcogenides SmS, SmSe and SmTe, as well as samarium (II) iodide. The last compound is a common reducing agent in chemical synthesis. Samarium has no significant biological role and is only slightly toxic.]

      The phrase, Samarium…hard silvery metal which ready oxidizes in air, as mentioned above implies the ease to respond to air in chemical reaction. The ease in chemical reaction with the contact of air would certainly affect the quality of Samarium and even the radioactive decay since it would not be solely Samarium but other elements that would form a new compound with it to increase or reduce its decay. This certainly would put radioactive dating method into question.

      Could scientists be able to separate Neodymium from Samarium? The following is the extract under the sub-title, Abstract, from the website address, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0...

      (A separation scheme for strontium and light rare earth elements and its application to the isotopic analysis of strontium and neodymium in silicate rocks are presented. This method benefits from the selectivity and high capacity of two newly introduced extraction Chromatographic materials, referred to as Sr.Spec and TRU.Spec, respectively. These afford a straightforward separation of Sr and Sm + Nd with high yield, good purity and satisfactory blank levels, on very small (0.25 ml) columns using small volumes of solutions of a single mineral acid, HNO3.)

      The phrase, These afford a straightforward of Sr and Sm + Nd…using small volumes of… HNO3, gives the information that scientists could separate Samarium and Neodymium through mineral acid, HNO3.

      Could Neodymium be able to stand alone from scientific point of view? Let’s observe the sequence of pictures of Neodymium in direct contact in air as shown in the website address, http://www.elementsales.com/re_exp/index.htm. For instance, if Samarium would turn up to be Neodymium-143 in a half life and that is 106 billion years, there would not be another half life for it since it would corrode in the air and ultimately vanish since it could not be isolated itself in the air. The computation of Samarium-Neodymium isotopes by means of radiometric dating method presumes Neodymium still retains for another half life and yet in reality, it could not. This has put the accuracy of radiometric dating method by means of Samarium-147 due to the possible corrosion of Neodymium-143 to its ultimate vanishing in the beginning of another half life. The computation of age through isotope by means of samarium has presumed that neodymium would continue for another half life once samarium has turned up to be neodymium after the initial half life. Yet in reality, neodymium would vanish instead of continuing its existence. As the reality is different from the assumption that is set up in radioactive dating method, the accuracy of the age that would have computed through this method is in question.

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      zuma 5 years ago

      Let’s examine all the common isotopes that are used by scientists so as to determine their acceptability in radiometric dating method.

      The following is the list of isotopes extracted from the website address, http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/geotime/radiometric.html, and, http://anthro.palomar.edu/time/table_of_isotopes.h...

      Parent Isotope; Stable Daughter Product; Half-Life Values

      Lutetium (Lu)-176; Hafnium (Hf)-176; 37.8 billion years

      Uranium-238 (U); Lead (Pb)-206; 4.5 billion years

      Uranium-235; Lead-207; 704 million years

      Thorium-232 (Th); Lead-208; 14.0 billion years

      Rubidium-87 (Rb); Strontium-87 (Sr); 48.8 billion years

      Potassium-40 (K); Argon-40 (Ar); 1.25 billion years

      Samarium-147 (Sm); Neodymium-143 (Nd); 106 billion years

      Carbon (C)-14; Nitrogen (N)-14; 5730 +/-40

      The analyses of the above-mentioned isotopes are as follows:

      a)Lutetium-176 (Parent Isotope) to Hafnium-176:

      The following is the extract of the article, Neutron-Deficient Nuclides of Hafnium and Lutetium, from the website address, http://prola.aps.org/abstract/PR/v122/i5/p1558_1:

      (New neutron-deficient nuclides of lutetium and hafnium were produced by bombarding lutetium oxide with 300- to 400-Mev protons. The genetic relationships and mass assignments were established by means of high-purity chemical separations and a series of chemical isolation experiments in which the daughter activity was determined as a function of time.)

      The above was the only piece of evidence that scientists have used it to prove that lutetium-176 could turn up to be Hafnium-176 in a half life.

      The phrase, New neutron-deficient nuclides of lutetium and hafnium were produced by bombarding lutetium oxide, as mentioned above implies the immediate transformation from lutetium oxide to hafnium. If lutetium-176 would take 37.8 billion years for it to be transformed into Hafnium-176, why is it that the transformation as mentioned in the above example could take immediate effect instead of a half life? Or in other words, it did not take a half life (37.8 billion years) for lutetium-176 to be transformed into Hafnium-176 and this has put radioactive dating method into question. As the formation of hafnium was by means of lutetium oxide as mentioned above instead of through a pure lutetium, it gives no ironic evidence whether the formation of hafnium could be by means of a pure lutetium. What if the formation of hafnium could only be done through the compound of lutetium, i.e. lutetium oxide, the result of the experiment would not serve as evidence that lutetium could turn up to be hafnium in a half life. Besides, a question has to be raised what other substance has been used by this scientist to assist in the explosion. What if this scientist would have added other substance to cause the explosion and that the substance, that would have added, would assist in the transformation of lutetium oxide to hafnium, relating lutetium to be the parent isotope of hafnium might not be appropriate unless with the help of other substance for its explosion. If that could be so, radioactive dating method by means of lutetium is in question since radioactive decay might not cause lutetium to be transformed into Hafnium unless certain substance has been added for explosion.

      Refer to he sequence of pictures in website address, http://www.elementsales.com/re_exp/re20071121.jpg, pertaining to lutetium. Lutetium would turn up to vanish in the 3rd year. As lutetium could not remain alone and would vanish in the air, it is irrational to assume that lutetium would exist throughout a half life (37.8 billion years) to be transformed into Hafnium since it would vanish in the air within 3 years. This has put radiometric dating method by means of lutetium-176 into question due to the possible vanish within 3 years and yet radiometric dating method gives assurance that it would last until 37.8 billion years for the transformation. How could lutetium be the parent isotope of Hafnium as it might vanish in the air within 3 months when it has been left alone in contacting with air and could not be transformed into Hafnium?

      b)Uranium (Parent Isotope) to Lead (Daughter Isotope):

      The following is the extract from the website address, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf14.html:

      (The Earth’s uranium (chemical symbol U) was apparently formed in supernovae up to about 6.6 billion years…)

      As mentioned in the website address, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Earth_creationi... that scientists have accepted the age of the earth to be 4.5 billion years and yet have computed the age of uranium through radioactive dating method to be about 6.6 billion years. As the age of uranium is higher than the earth, this has put the reliability of radioactive dating method into question.

      Could uranium be able to transform into lead?

      The following is the extract from the website address, http://www.pathlights.com/ce_encyclopedia/sci-ev/s...

      (Uranium-thorium-lead dating, based on the disintegration of uranium and THORIUM into radium, helium, etc., and finally into LEAD.)

      The process above shows that uranium has to pass through Thorium in order to be transformed into lead.

      Could Thorium be able to transform into Lead?

      The following is the extract from the 1st paragraph under the sub-title, Abstract, from the website address, http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1914Natur..93..479L:

      (THE work of Boltwood and Holmes some years ago on the occurrence of lead and uranium in minerals rendered it very improbable that the end product of thorium could be lead. From recent generalisations, however, in respect to radio-elements and the periodic law, it is to be expected that the end products of the radio-active elements should all be isotopic with lead.)

      The phrase, uranium in minerals rendered it very improbable that the end product of thorium could be lead, as extracted above implies that scientists have no physical witness that thorium could turn up to lead. Besides, it is by no means for them to transform thorium into lead ultimately. As thorium could be by no means to turn up to lead currently, how could scientists assure the transformation would come true in a half life and would be in 14.0 billion years later? This has indeed placed the reliability of radiometric dating method into question. The reason why they put these two together is simply due to they meet radio-elements and the periodic law instead of seeing the physical transformation from Thorium-232 to Lead-208.

      c)Thorium-232 (Parent isotope) to Lead-208 (Daughter Isotope):

      As explained in clause b) above the impossibility of the transformation of Thorium to Lead. It has placed reliability of radiometric dating method into question.

      d)Rubidium-87 (Parent Isotope) to Strontium-87 (Daughter Isotope):

      The following is the extract from the 3rd paragraph under the sub-title, Isotopes, from the website address, http://www.chemistryexplained.com/elements/P-T/Rub...

      (Rubidium-87 is used to estimate the age of very old rocks. Many kinds of rocks contain two rubidium isotopes, rubidium-85 and rubidium-87. When rubidium-87 breaks down in the rock, it changes into a new isotope, strontium -87. Any rock that contains rubidium-87 also contains some strontium-87. )

      As the phrase, When rubidium-87 breaks down in the rock it changes into a new isotope strontium-87, is mentioned above, it implies the immediate transformation from rubidium-87 to strontium-87. Or in other words, it does not take a half life (or 48.8 billion years) for rubidium-87 to be transformed into strontium-87. The transformation is simply immediate and this has put the reliability of radioactive dating into question. For instance, if radiometric dating method is a truth, it should follow the rule of half life in which rubidium-87 should take 48.8 billion years for it to be transformed into strontium-87. As it would take an immediate transformation from rubidium-87 to strontium-87, the reliability of the computation of age by means of radiometric dating would be in question.

      e)Potassium-40 (Parent Isotope) to Argon-40 (Daughter Isotope):

      The following is the http://www.ehow.com/way_5229579_fossil-dating-tech...

      (Unfortunately, only 11

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      HI Mary! we should leave lol... I believe digital records would be of supreme importance in the years to come

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      Wow, that's a mouthful of information. "How an archaeologist interprets and presents these dates depends on his/her understanding of the relative dating and history of various cultures." So, if we try to date our historical culture (2012) should we leave reliable data on hub pages?

      Voted up and interesting.

    • josh3418 profile image

      Joshua Zerbini 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      You are welcome Rah! Anytime! :)

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Thanks Lil! glad to know you are a science lover

    • lilyfly profile image

      Lillian K. Staats 5 years ago from Wasilla, Alaska

      I love science... really liked this... lily

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Thanks so much Rasma... I am glad you liked it

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Oh it is Always... how brilliant of Libby to find a method to date artifacts :)

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      thanks Ruchira... your addition to the work is much appreciated

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Mike... I love Science... Math History... in fact education and knowledge is something which fascinates me brother 'cause you know... you keep attaining it ..until you die...

      Even in your deathbed... you realize and educate yourself about how you are dying..

      I would love to see the scientist in you Mike... I sense in your work and brilliant sense of technical perfectness you have... i would love to see more of that... :)

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Thanks Girish.. I am glad I could add something to your knowledge

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      hi Sush! Thanks for the visit...

      AAh! those science lessons at school...I remember how I used to bunk some... hehe.. but they are so important.. !! I will keep your advice in mind Sush

      Thanks again for the kind visit

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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Thanks Max... If I can connect to you.. I can connect to more... :))

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Hi there Hscchemistry! Nice to meet you! I will admit I googled free carbon cycle images mate...

      thank you for your kind comments and the follow... :))

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Oh Yes Pooja! Archaeology and history fascinate me to the core... Thank you for the visit... and comments

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Hi Maria... you and Effer... are definitely not foolish.. you all are stalwarts of the hubville..

      Thank you for showering your kind visit on my work

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Thank you so much Audrey...

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Joshua... you are a wonderful friend Mate... hat's off to your kindness and humbleness...

      Thank you..

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      hahahaha... Effer.. your comment is more entertaining than my hub!! LOL... well you have given me an imaginative topic to write a poem on too!! It will be coming soon... LOL....yes Effer... it is science... which is also used in archaeology.

      I am glad you can impress your friends...you would without this hub also.. :)

      Thank you for your kindness

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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Hi Flash... you are ri8.. but then ... all the dating methods come with some flaws and none give exact results... ..

      thank you again for visiting

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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      thank you so much Mwilliam

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Thanks Frank... you are always kind to me...:)

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Thanks do much Christy... much appreciated

    • rahul0324 profile image
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      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Do come back and leave your feedback Vinaya... thank you

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      Gypsy Rose Lee 5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and interesting. Great work Rahul. This is fascinating.

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      Ruby Jean Fuller 5 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Wow, I'm not sure i understand but the concept is fascinating...

    • Ruchira profile image

      Ruchira 5 years ago from United States

      very interesting concept and put in a pleasant way...loved it, Rahul.

      radiocarbon exposure sure is contaminating our environment and our bodies...thus, the effects of global warming!!

      voted up and sharing it across

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      Mike Pugh 5 years ago from New York City

      This hub is pretty technical in its nature, but I love it because I love science Rahul, I was an engineering student many years back, and even though I never competed my college degree, i still have learned to fully embrace that of the logic's and understanding of such subject matter.

      You my friend are on the road to success for sure here on hubpages writing with such intensity, and scholarly wisdom of the technological kind, and so I commend you on a job well done, and you never know this hub may inspire me to break out the scientific side of me.

      I been holding back that part as well, and shall swing such a power force here soon, Like in physics force equals mass X acceleration due to gravity, and yours has definitely been picking up some huge ground coverage & momentum for sure.

      Powerful stuff bro, oh I also have pro level calibrations experience in the US Navy, and so I can relate to that part of this hub on carbon dating as well that you've laid down here so swiftly. Nice technique and awesome word delivery voted up and outta here.

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      Girish puri 5 years ago from NCR , INDIA

      very much useful hub and an addition to my knowledge. voted up

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      Sushmita 5 years ago from Kolkata, India

      Rahul, school day lessons came to mind. Nicely done, and as I see from the comments, very useful too. I think the science is very well done, but a few short sentences on utility may have made the matter clear to some who are new to it (though you have mentioned about archaeology). Voted up, useful and interesting, the graphics too. A little science lesson now and then, is more than required. :)

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      BeyondMax 5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      I always wondered how this thingy works, it's fascinating, really interesting explanation and really easy to comprehend (relatively =)) Like it a lot.

    • hscchemistry profile image

      hscchemistry 5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Absolutely AWESOME hub - I love the information here and the format is incredible. Did you make those images yourself?! Very very well put together - I'll be sure to follow in the future!

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      poojasd7 5 years ago from India

      It's so good to know that you have so much interest and passion about the stuff related to archaeology. Hats off!

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      Maria Jordan 5 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

      Oh thank goodness fpher made that comment... I was beginning to feel very very foolish.

      But you are not, rahul... this is a commanding presentation of a subject that I was obviously most unfamiliar with. Thank you for sharing your expertise. Voted UP & Interesting. Hugs, Maria

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      Audrey Howitt 5 years ago from California

      Just an excellent explanation of the process!!

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      Joshua Zerbini 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      I am glad I happend upon this hub because my knowledge of the subject is rather smakll, that is until now! You are a very intelluctual writer, and like Melissa said have written this in a simplistic way! Great job, voted up, useful, and sharing!

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      Paula 5 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      OK, rahul.....you fooled me. It's OK, you can laugh at me.....I laughed at myself. When I saw your Title, I thought I would be treated to a poem about a new type of Dating Trend.....as in "boy meets girl, dating".........lol.

      Seriously......not that I have any interest in dating ( my husband and I frown upon dating while married! lol) BUT, I always enjoy your poems, so of course I came here to your hub.

      Surprise! I got a very interesting Science lesson.......it IS Science, right?

      Now I can impress my friends with what I know about Radiocarbon dating........and I can assure you, they will ask me if it's anything like On-line dating!! Thank you rahul.....I had fun!

      btw...as you can see, I am not blonde.

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      flashmakeit 5 years ago from usa

      I guess carbon dating can never prove evolution because it has to many flaws. Before I read this article I had no knowledge about c 14. Thanks for make me aware of this subject. I am now a little wiser. I think I better read this again to get the full meaning.

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      mwilliams66 5 years ago from Left Coast, USA

      This is a fascinating subject Rahul and you've given us a wonderful science lesson. Very well layed out and easily understood. Voting up and sharing.

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      Frank Atanacio 5 years ago from Shelton

      good share my friend.. thanks for the lesson in Radiocarbon dating

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      Christy Birmingham 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      So much information packed in here, very useful!

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      Vinaya Ghimire 5 years ago from Nepal

      Wonderful science lesson. I could not remember all the points, hope to come back later for a second read.