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Radiocarbon decays slowly in a living organism, and the amount lost is continually replenished as long as the organism takes in air or food.
Once the organism dies, however, it ceases to absorb carbon-14, so that the amount of the radiocarbon in its tissues steadily decreases.
Accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) is a modern radiocarbon dating method that is considered to be the more efficient way to measure radiocarbon content of a sample.
In this method, the carbon 14 content is directly measured relative to the carbon 12 and carbon 13 present. Some inorganic matter, like a shell’s aragonite component, can also be dated as long as the mineral’s formation involved assimilation of carbon 14 in equilibrium with the atmosphere.
The method does not count beta particles but the number of carbon atoms present in the sample and the proportion of the isotopes. Samples that have been radiocarbon dated since the inception of the method include charcoal, wood, twigs, seeds, bones, shells, leather, peat, lake mud, soil, hair, pottery, pollen, wall paintings, corals, blood residues, fabrics, paper or parchment, resins, and water, among others.
Plants and animals assimilate carbon 14 from carbon dioxide throughout their lifetimes.
This scintillator produces a flash of light when it interacts with a beta particle.
A vial with a sample is passed between two photomultipliers, and only when both devices register the flash of light that a count is made.
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.
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No other scientific method has managed to revolutionize man’s understanding not only of his present but also of events that already happened thousands of years ago.