Radio carbon dating accuracy

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They arrived at this conclusion by comparing age estimates obtained using two different methods - analysis of radioactive carbon in a sample and determination of the ratio of uranium to thorium in the sample.

In some cases, the latter ratio appears to be a much more accurate gauge of age than the customary method of carbon dating, the scientists said.

But when a plant or animal dies, it can no longer accumulate fresh carbon 14, and the supply in the organism at the time of death is gradually depleted.

Since the rate of depletion has been accurately determined (half of any given amount of carbon 14 decays in 5,730 years), scientists can calculate the time elapsed since something died from its residual carbon 14.

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Using a mass spectrometer, an instrument that accelerates streams of atoms and uses magnets to sort them out according to mass and electric charge, the group has learned to measure the ratio of uranium to thorium very precisely.

The best gauge they have found is dendrochronology: the measurement of age by tree rings.

Accurate tree ring records of age are available for a period extending 9,000 years into the past.

According to carbon dating of fossil animals and plants, the spreading and receding of great ice sheets lagged behind orbital changes by several thousand years, a delay that scientists found hard to explain. The group theorizes that large errors in carbon dating result from fluctuations in the amount of carbon 14 in the air.

Changes in the Earth's magnetic field would change the deflection of cosmic-ray particles streaming toward the Earth from the Sun.

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