Radiocarbon, or carbon 14, is an isotope of the element carbon that is unstable and weakly radioactive. Carbon 14 is continually being formed in the upper atmosphere by the effect of cosmic ray neutrons on nitrogen 14 atoms.
Archaeology and other human sciences use radiocarbon dating to prove or disprove theories.
Over the years, carbon 14 dating has also found applications in geology, hydrology, geophysics, atmospheric science, oceanography, paleoclimatology, and even biomedicine.
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.
Radiocarbon dating is essentially a method designed to measure residual radioactivity.
By knowing how much carbon 14 is left in a sample, the age of the organism when it died can be known. 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.
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. 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.
The main force driving technical development of the radiocarbon dating technique is the wide spectrum of applications that cross interdisciplinary boundaries of Earth and social sciences.
This paper provides a very brief overview of some of the many applications of 14C analysis to various studies of human origin and migration, cultures and history, past and present environment, and the human body itself.