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When they die, they stop exchanging carbon with the biosphere and their carbon 14 content then starts to decrease at a rate determined by the law of radioactive decay.
Radiocarbon dating is essentially a method designed to measure residual radioactivity.
A radiocarbon measurement is termed a conventional radiocarbon age (CRA).
The CRA conventions include (a) usage of the Libby half-life, (b) usage of Oxalic Acid I or II or any appropriate secondary standard as the modern radiocarbon standard, (c) correction for sample isotopic fractionation to a normalized or base value of -25.0 per mille relative to the ratio of carbon 12/carbon 13 in the carbonate standard VPDB – Cretaceous belemnite formation at Peedee in South Carolina, (d) zero BP (Before Present) is defined as AD 1950, and (e) the assumption that global radiocarbon levels are constant.
By knowing how much carbon 14 is left in a sample, the age of the organism when it died can be known.
It must be noted though that radiocarbon dating results indicate when the organism was alive but not when a material from that organism was used.
Background samples analyzed are usually geological in origin of infinite age such as coal, lignite, and limestone.American physical chemist Willard Libby led a team of scientists in the post World War II era to develop a method that measures radiocarbon activity.He is credited to be the first scientist to suggest that the unstable carbon isotope called radiocarbon or carbon 14 might exist in living matter. Libby and his team of scientists were able to publish a paper summarizing the first detection of radiocarbon in an organic sample. Libby who first measured radiocarbon’s rate of decay and established 5568 years ± 30 years as the half-life. Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in recognition of his efforts to develop radiocarbon dating.1.An age could be estimated by measuring the amount of carbon-14 present in the sample and comparing this against an internationally used reference standard.The impact of the radiocarbon dating technique on modern man has made it one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century.