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Method of determining the age of once-living material, developed by U.S. physicist Willard Libby in 1947. It depends on the decay of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 (radiocarbon) to nitrogen. All living plants and animals continually take in carbon: green plants absorb it in the form of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and it is passed to animals through the food chain. Some of this carbon is radioactive carbon-14, which slowly decays to the stable isotope nitrogen-14. When an organism dies it stops taking in carbon, so the amount of carbon-14 in its tissues steadily decreases. Because carbon-14 decays at a constant rate, the time since an organism died can be estimated by measuring the amount of radiocarbon in its remains. The method is a useful technique for dating fossils and archaeological specimens from 500 to 50,000 years old and is widely used by geologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists.
Variants of CARBON-14 DATING
carbon-14 dating or radiocarbon dating
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on carbon-14 dating, visit Britannica.com.
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