date of organic material - but an approximate age, usually within a range of a few years either way.
The other method is “Relative Dating” which gives an order of events without giving an exact age (1): typically artefact typology or the study of the sequence of the evolution of fossils.
It is presumed that the proportion of atmospheric C is the same today as it was in 1950 (10), (11) and that the half-life remains the same.
When an organism dies, it stops absorbing the radioactive isotope and immediately starts decaying (7).
As previously mentioned, the half life of the C isotope is 5,730 years - this means that it takes 5,730 years to reach half the radioactivity that the organism had at the point of death, another 5,730 years to reach 25% radioactivity it had at the point of death and so on.
The method developed in the 1940's and was a ground-breaking piece of research that would change dating methods forever. Libby calculated the rate of radioactive decay of the C isotope (4) in carbon black powder.
As a test, the team took samples of acacia wood from two Egyptian Pharaohs and dated them; the results came back to within what was then a reasonable range: 2800BC /- 250 years whereas the earlier independent dates (largely the dendrochronology records) were 2625 /- 75 years (3), (5).
The other two isotopes in comparison are more common than carbon-14 in the atmosphere but increase with the burning of fossil fuels making them less reliable for study (2); carbon-14 also increases, but its relative rarity means its increase is negligible. After this point, other Absolute Dating methods may be used.
Today, the radiocarbon-14 dating method is used extensively in environmental sciences and in human sciences such as archaeology and anthropology.
Radiocarbon dating is simply a measure of the level of C isotopes in the atmosphere can vary.
This is why calibration against objects whose age is known is required (14).
The next big step in the radiocarbon dating method would be Accelerated Mass Spectrometry which was developed in the late 1980s and published its first results in 1994 (3).