New carbon dating

If a Bigtooth Maple were cut down on Mount Lemmon in 2016 and it had 400 rings, you would know the tree started growing in 1616. What if it's been used to build a home or a ship or a bonfire?

The rings could still tell how many years the tree lived, but not necessarily when. He set out on a series of expeditions across the southwest to bridge the gap between contemporary wood and wood beams from the ruins of civilizations long gone.

A professor emeritus at Texas A&M University College Station, Rowe teaches at a branch of the university in Qatar.

Traditional carbon dating involves removing and burning small samples of the object.

Other corrections must be made to account for the proportion of throughout the biosphere (reservoir effects).

Additional complications come from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, and from the above-ground nuclear tests done in the 1950s and 1960s.

The older a sample is, the less (the period of time after which half of a given sample will have decayed) is about 5,730 years, the oldest dates that can be reliably measured by this process date to around 50,000 years ago, although special preparation methods occasionally permit accurate analysis of older samples.

Carbon dating is used to work out the age of organic material — in effect, any living thing.

By measuring the ratio of the radio isotope to non-radioactive carbon, the amount of carbon-14 decay can be worked out, thereby giving an age for the specimen in question.

But that assumes that the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere was constant — any variation would speed up or slow down the clock.

The clock was initially calibrated by dating objects of known age such as Egyptian mummies and bread from Pompeii; work that won Willard Libby the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

But even he “realized that there probably would be variation”, says Christopher Bronk Ramsey, a geochronologist at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the latest work, published today in Science.

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