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Famous uses of carbon dating
AMS works slightly differently; it converts the atoms of the sample into fast-moving ions so that they become charged atoms.
There are three carbon isotopes that occur as part of the Earth's natural processes; these are carbon-12, carbon-13 and carbon-14.
The unstable nature of carbon 14 (with a precise half-life that makes it easy to measure) means it is ideal as an absolute dating method.
This does not mean that we have a precise year of 3780BC, it means we then need to calibrate through other methods that will show us how atmospheric concentrations of the C isotope has changed - most typically through the dendrochronology records (tree ring data) (10).
Very old trees such as North American Bristlecone Pine are ideal for constructing long and accurate records of the state of the atmosphere.
AMS counts the quantity of C isotope is constantly formed in the upper atmosphere thanks to the effects of cosmic rays on nitrogen-14 atoms.
It is oxidised quickly and absorbed in great quantities by all living organisms - animal and plant, land and ocean dwelling alike.
The sample passes through several accelerators in order to remove as many atoms as possible until the C pass into the detector.
These latter atoms are used as part of the calibration process to measure the relative number of isotopes (9).
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).