The carbon-14 decays with its half-life of 5,700 years, while the amount of carbon-12 remains constant in the sample.
By looking at the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-14 in the sample and comparing it to the ratio in a living organism, it is possible to determine the age of a formerly living thing fairly precisely. So, if you had a fossil that had 10 percent carbon-14 compared to a living sample, then that fossil would be: t = [ ln (0.10) / (-0.693) ] x 5,700 years t = [ (-2.303) / (-0.693) ] x 5,700 years t = [ 3.323 ] x 5,700 years Because the half-life of carbon-14 is 5,700 years, it is only reliable for dating objects up to about 60,000 years old.
Desmond Clark (1979) wrote that were it not for radiocarbon dating, "we would still be foundering in a sea of imprecisions sometime bred of inspired guesswork but more often of imaginative speculation" (Clark, 1979:7).
Writing of the European Upper Palaeolithic, Movius (1960) concluded that "time alone is the lens that can throw it into focus".
After plants die or are consumed by other organisms, the incorporation of all carbon isotopes, including 14C, stops.
Thereafter, the concentration (fraction) of 14C declines at a fixed exponential rate due to the radioactive decay of 14C. ) Comparing the remaining 14C fraction of a sample to that expected from atmospheric 14C allows us to estimate the age of the sample.
Libby of the University of Chicago in immediate post-WW2 years.
Raw (i.e., uncalibrated) radiocarbon ages are usually reported in radiocarbon years "Before Present" (BP), with "present" defined as CE 1950.
Such raw ages can be calibrated to give calendar dates.
Nyerup's words illustrate poignantly the critical power and importance of dating; to order time.
Radiocarbon dating has been one of the most significant discoveries in 20th century science.