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Carbon-14 Dating

April 18, 2007

Carbon-14 Dating, or just Carbon Dating, is an extremely useful dating method that’s been in use since 1947. Carbon Dating is part of a larger field called Radioisotope dating which is our primary method for assigning date to fossils, rocks, skeletons, and parchment. “Before the 1940s, scientists had no accurate way of determining the age of fossils or other ancient objects” notes Lemelson-MIT. Radioisotope dating is, to my knowledge, basically the only way that we date fossils, rock layers, and by extension the age of the Earth. Since it is so crucial we’ve gotten very good at it. We have advanced machines with amazing levels of accuracy and procedures to avoid any contamination. So let me explain how carbon dating works and then we’ll get on to some interesting stuff.

Carbon-14 is a radioactive isotope of regular old carbon. From what we know, carbon-14 is created in the upper atmosphere by solar radiation colliding with nitrogen to produce carbon-14. It then drifts down through the atmosphere and is absorbed by plants, which are eaten by herbivores, then carnivores, and it enters the cycle of life. Living things sustain a present day level of about 1 carbon-14 atom in 1 trillion atoms. When something dies, it stops taking in carbon-14 by breathing and eating, so the clock begins. Carbon dating allows us to track the time of death with great accuracy because it has a very short half-life. Half the amount of carbon is depleted every 5,730 years. This means that for a finite 1 gram sample there will be absolutely no carbon-14 left in the sample after around 230,000 years. So these are the base assumptions for all radioisotope dating (remember axioms?):

  • Original Amounts known (present day values used)
  • Rate of decay must be constant (present day measurements used)
  • Closed System assumption (rocks should not cross-contaminate)

As I mentioned, we’ve gotten really good at this radioisotope dating thing and so scientists have developed “Isochron Plots” to test assumptions 1 and 3. Rate of decay isn’t really double-checked but it is based on the basic atomic structure of the atom. So now you know more about radioisotopes than 99% of the world.

Here’s the interesting part: when scientists go out and sample every fossil, rock, peice of coal, marble, wood, or any fossil they find low levels of Carbon-14 in them. Now remember, anything past 250,000 years (or earlier) should be totally carbon dead if the assumptions hold. This was originally attributed to limited machine accuracy. But machine accuracy has improved, in fact, scientists have known about this problem for over 20 years. The obvious conclusion was that something they were doing was contaminating the samples (assumption 3). So they scour the lab, set up the most strict procedures. Before doing a test they dunk a sample in acid, then base, then acid again to remove any outside contamination. What they found is that the carbon levels remained. Eventually, people working at the carbon dating labs concluded that the samples must be contaminated out in the field, before it ever got to the lab, and dropped the issue. Carbon dating is only used for things considered recent for this reason.

Natural DiamondsIt took a group of very unorthodox scientists called the RATE team to look at it again. This is why I like people who go against the grain. They came up with the idea of testing the contamination assumption by carbon dating diamonds. Diamonds are the perfect choice; they are the hardest substance in the world, they’re made from carbon, they can’t be infiltrated by water, and they’re assumed to be ancient, dating back to the origins of life on this planet. They collected multiple diamonds from multiple layers in different mines all around the world and selected the world’s premier carbon dating labs to have them tested. No one had bothered testing diamonds because they are very hard to test and should be entirely carbon-dead. What they found is that diamonds have a similar range of carbon-14 as most fossils do. If you use uniformitarian assumptions we can calculate the age to approximately 58,000 years old. That’s a big difference from the expected 1-2 billion years. (poster)

There’s four definite possibilities that I can see from this data. One or more of the 3 base assumptions are wrong or if all assumptions hold, diamonds are really 58,000 years old. Interestingly, no one is claiming that all diamonds are 58,000 years old because it doesn’t fit with anyone’s model quite right. At the very least, this data should call into question the unswerving accuracy of radioisotope dating methods. Being off by a factor of 1,000 is not acceptable in most academic circles.

(I’ll be getting back to this topic in a later article.)

Further Comments: I had a friend bring up the issue of statistical outliers.  These are common occurrences of things that do not agree with the general trend.  Most of the time these outliers are thrown out as errors.  He pointed out that if you threw out the main body and instead kept any outliers that agreed with you then you could make the data say whatever you wanted.  First off, people are dumb but I’d think that even a very biased person would notice throwing out MOST of the data that they personally generate.  So this is essentially based on the conviction that these people are being dishonest.

That aside, I asked Dr. Baumgardner (primary researcher) about this directly.  He said that there actually WERE some outliers in the data that he threw out because he felt they were errors.  Well I guess we caught them.  Except for, the samples (a minority) he threw out actually showed younger dates than the rest of the group.  So he’s actually showing the oldest dated samples.  The samples that were thrown out dated to closer to 11,000 years, which would be much easier to reconcile with a young earth model.  This batch used a different cleaning process which he believed was suspect because one of the ingredients contained carbon.  Instead he kept the ones that, while presenting trouble for an old earth, also didn’t fit perfectly with his model.

I think the main criticism that can be leveled at this point is that they haven’t tested ALL the diamonds in the world, so you can’t prove a non-existence.  The diamonds they did test were from all over the world and different beds and elevations, even some from alluvial deposits.  I’ve heard other researchers have confirmed these results but I went looking and couldn’t find anything else.  Usually private companies, like carbon dating labs, don’t publish papers in journals, it’s not their primary motivation.  And to anyone who would like to make up a story about how diamonds are a special case and how C-14 dating still works on everything else, remember this was made to test why all fossils have relatively young C-14 dates.

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18 comments

  1. I found some other forms of radiometric dating:

    Types of radiometric dating

    * argon-argon (Ar-Ar)
    * fission track dating
    * helium (He-He)
    * iodine-xenon (I-Xe)
    * lanthanum-barium (La-Ba)
    * lead-lead (Pb-Pb)
    * lutetium-hafnium (Lu-Hf)
    * neon-neon (Ne-Ne)
    * optically stimulated luminescence dating
    * potassium-argon (K-Ar)
    * radiocarbon dating
    * rhenium-osmium (Re-Os)
    * rubidium-strontium (Rb-Sr)
    * samarium-neodymium (Sm-Nd)
    * uranium-lead (U-Pb)
    * uranium-lead-helium (U-Pb-He)
    * uranium-thorium (U-Th)
    * uranium-uranium (U-U)

    Furthermore, I found another tool used referred to as the Calibration Curve.


  2. The content of this article is basically an excerpt from the RATE project results. Sorry I can’t cover everything. I picked this because Radiocarbon dating is pretty straight forward to explain. It should hopefully get people thinking. If I don’t mention something it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, only that I have limited space.

    I suggest anyone thinking about this check out the RATE project. The RATE project was an 8-year long research initiative that did a full examination of radioisotope dating. Radioisotopes can get to be a very technical subject. But if you’re in the mood for some research RATE published two complete technical volumes each around 500 pages detailing every iota of their research techniques in the first volume, then results in the second volume. The initial predictions were published in the first volume before research was done so that it could be back-checked in the public domain. Further they contracted out many of their research assignments to third party specialists so that no bias could be introduced into the data. Many of the third-parties didn’t even know who the job was for.

    For a more concise explanation in less technical terms the book “Thousands Not Billions” was written to be readable for people without training in nuclear physics. Topher mentioned fission tracks and helium dating which are covered extensively. They are particularly interesting because they give double dates. They not only measure the amount of decay that has occurred, but also how long since the crystal was last heated (fission tracks) or how long the byproducts have been sitting in the crystal in the case of Helium. The results are good food for thought for the kind of person who doesn’t accept everything on faith. Investigation is the heart of research.


  3. I’ve been trying to look for a third party source of the RATE project other than from ICR. I couldn’t find it on wikipedia. However, I did find these:

    http://gondwanaresearch.com/rate.htm
    http://www.answersincreation.org/rate_index.htm


  4. Once again, it’s important to actually understand a position or research before reading a critic’s analysis will do any good. I read through the Old Earth Creationist response to the RATE project already. I was surprised at the number of inaccuracies or misunderstandings in their review. It seems unlikely they actually read any of the finished material because they’re off on some pretty basic stuff. Unfortunately, most of the people that are motivated enough to write a response are the most seriously biased. It reminds me of restaurant reviews that are either “loved it” or “hated it”. It seems that most people have already made up their minds about science one way or another. This site is only of benefit to people who are still investigating. I’m hoping that there is some happy middle-ground between preaching to the choir and trying to get Bush to vote democratic.

    The gondwana paper is a response based exclusively on the original proposal. In one sense, it’s not very useful because it predates any actual published results, on the other hand, it is interesting to see that the author also uses foregone conclusions about RATE’s false results before there was any results to actually look at.

    RATE was not simply a foregone conclusion, that’s why scientists were interested in investing a large amount of their time into doing the research in the first place. Their research objectives, like any other scientist’s, were guided by previous studies and known anomalies. This is why it’s important to have multiple groups of scientists with different starting assumptions. Their research actually overthrew the ideas of Dr. Gentry, because the polonium halos turned out to be tied to the flood and thus were not “fingerprints” of creation. That is what happens with real science, often old ideas are overthrown with new data, that’s why people shouldn’t cling on to them like their life depended on it.

    As for the discordant dates, they were researching them because they knew they were discordant, the question was why are they discordant. Their research shows that there is a pattern to the discordance that may give us clues to fundamental properties of nuclear force and radioactive decay. If they had simply shrugged at “bad data” and kept moving then no one would have ever noticed that. (Grand Canyon Rocks) More than anything else, starting assumptions tell scientists what to ignore as irrelevant. That is why science needs people like Creation Scientists who don’t simply shrug off inconsistent data. That is the core of investigation.

    In any case, I’ve never seen an intelligent response to the presence of Carbon-14 in diamonds. One geochronologist dismissed the matter by saying “They obviously don’t understand our work. We use diamonds as a background value that we measure other samples off of.” With a little bit of thought this phrase should catch your attention. If this lab is using diamonds as a baseline then they’re operating under the assumption that they have no C-14 in based on their theory of the timeline. Then he uses the measurement to confirm the theory. It’s circular reasoning at it’s most blatant.

    To me, this seems like a crucial issue. I have heard that other secular scientists have confirmed the presence of C-14 but I couldn’t find any of the technical papers in my search. It is a simple scientific question that doesn’t need to be taken with all the flame-war emotional baggage: Is there C-14 in diamonds, and if so, how did it get there?


  5. I also found this site:

    http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2770

    However, it says the project was 5 years.

    Is it ongoing? Are there any peer reviews or links to reviews to these journals? How bout the journals themselves? I know many ppl that are very interested in reading them. How exclusive are these journals? Finally, if they are not out yet when will they be released to the public?


  6. The Technical Paper is here:
    http://www.icr.org/store/index.php?main_page=pubs_product_book_info&products_id=2658&zenid=59110e6c77f3b7778a399ea655599894

    The layman’s version is here:
    http://www.icr.org/store/index.php?main_page=pubs_product_book_info&products_id=2643

    If you’d like, I will buy you a copy and send it to you – either version, the technical or the layman.

    Here is a version of the paper published on the ICR website:
    http://www.icr.org/pdf/research/RATE_ICC_Vardiman.pdf

    Here’s a listing of other research papers on the ICR website:
    http://www.icr.org/research/index/researchp_papers/

    As far as I have been able to research, using scholar.google.com, there is no secular peer review on the project yet. All commentary I found on the project pretty much followed what I outlined in my article on Creation vs. Evolution, mainly no one really looked at the evidence and criticized methods and/or presuppositions. Nor have I found any reviews or papers published on related topics, ie C-14 in Diamonds or other “old” organics (marble, coal, oil, etc) or Helium diffusion that was not from an original creationist source — I imagine you would not accept creationist peer-reviews as acceptable, but if you do, I will link to the several of those I found.

    The Creationist journals that I found are just as exclusive as other technical journals — namely, that you must pay to subscribe to them.

    Journal of Creation (formerly Technical Journal of… and Creatio Ex Nihilo):
    http://www.creationontheweb.com/content/view/3873/

    There is also the International Creation Conference, which does not have a webpage so far as I can find. And Creation Science Quarterly, which appears to be out of print. There are many back issues in the library in ICR, I’m sure you can request a photocopy of any articles you may wish.

    Anything else?
    -Raeliyah, Researcher


  7. I was doing some research on wikipedia about diamonds and carbon 14. The exact creation of carbon 14 is the result of Nitrogen being exposed to thermal neutrons.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_14

    Furthermore, I found that the most common impurity in diamonds happens to be nitrogen.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diamond

    Here is more information on Thermal Neutrons.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermal_neutron

    I think anyone can make the connection here. 230,000 years is an estimate of last exposure to thermal neutrons, not the creation of the diamonds.

    The diamond section in particular was very informative.

    Let me know when the peer review is supposed to come out for those technical papers.


  8. Another important factor in using carbon dating is the ratio of c 14 to c. Remember diamonds are made of carbon.


  9. I don’t know the exact source of where the half life of carbon 14, 5,240 years came from, but from what I understood from reading the following link it depends on which method you want to use, libby or cambridge, the half life of carbon 14 can be 5568±30 years (libby) or 5730±40 (cambridge, more accurate) here is more information on the topic.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiocarbon_dating


  10. I also noticed that the usefulness of radiocarbon dating can be used up to 105,000 years. It used to be only 60,000 years until studies were done in 2001 on speleothem which later extended it by 45,000 years.

    Are the diamonds assumed to be once completely made of carbon 14? How did they get 230,000 years anyway? What ratio of c to c 14 is being used? Was most of the carbon from the diamond or from carbon 14 decaying to carbon


  11. Good Research. Actually you did catch a couple mistakes that I made in writing the article. You can just double check it against the poster I referenced and see the mistakes. The C-14 half life used in the study was 5,730 years (the more accurate one). Also, 230,000 years is how long it would take for not a single atom of carbon-14 to remain in their sample. So basically the maximum age you could possibly get with 100% accurate instruments. The amount of Carbon-14 detected in diamonds corresponds to 58,000 years. So I’ll fix that in the article.

    On the issue of radiation, it was one of the objections that Dr. Russell Humphreys addressed in his presentation at CSU. The original explanation for C-14 in samples was that they were contaminated in the lab, that possibility was carefully guarded against, so then the explanation became they were contaminated on site. So RATE used diamonds to test the contamination assumption. Then the explanation became that underground radiation interacted with the Nitrogen in diamonds to maintain C-14 at low levels constantly. Dr. Humphreys admitted that that was a really good theory and so they decided to test the radiation levels where the diamonds were extracted and they were 1,000 times too low.

    So, new theory: there are intermittent burst of radiation (free/thermal neutrons) every 10,000 years or so that push the C-14 levels up and then they decay again. This means that everything on the planet that has nitrogen nearby will have low levels of C-14 but the ambient radiation levels are far lower than necessary when measured.

    One thing I am learning is that people can always create an explanation for any given piece of data. There is always a story to be told. As one story dies out another, more complex one, can be made in its place that fits all currently known data like a glove. This is why often times people judge a theory’s merit based on how it has survived the test of time. When we get down to the level of straining current human understanding, radioisotope dating becomes truly ambiguous. It could go either way and I would hope that no one is claiming they have an air-tight case. Simply to point out that a theory is not absolutely proven allows people to use their free will and decide for themselves. If it seems more believable that the current explanation is true then that is a person’s choice to make, I am just glad to encourage them to look into it.


  12. again according to wikipedia.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diamond

    It is theorized that diamonds form at least 90 miles down. The deepest we have ever dug is about 7.6 miles. Who said the diamonds were last exposed to ambient radiation at any depth less than 7.6 miles? The date given by the carbon 14 could be the time taken from last exposure to excavation.

    Read more about diamonds again at:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diamond


  13. For the sake of fairness, even though the author of this page sees neutrality as an enemy(evolution section of this page), if we are to include any material from “thousands… not billions”, we have to include every other possible explanation. Even the ones we haven’t thought of yet. However, since we can’t do that we have to leave such things on the table of the unknown and unprovable. Last I checked, conventional theories and ideas are still in far lead of creationist scientists.

    After reading the above book I found it all was solely based on the bible. Moreover, I found numerous self contradictions and bias’ within the book. Interpretations were just interpretations, very little experimentation. It linked directly to the bible. What resulted in accelerated decay?… “The creator.” Such events were said to have occured only a few times. Any evidence? nope. I could just as easily say it was done by the devil just so he can get more disbeleiving souls. By the way, there is evidence showing that massive supercontinents existed before pangea. I feel like a character in the sims…

    If we talk about the subject of diamonds in the book. ONLY a few possibities were given for the explanation of c 14 in diamonds. Unfortunately, those possibilities are unfounded with any evidence seperate from the bible. The book states the inconsistency with diamonds being millions of years and the c 14 dates. It even states they don’t have to have any relation with the eachother, c 14 dates and diamond dates can still be different. But the book’s conclusion on the c 14 dating on diamonds and coal reverted back and said they are related. Therefore, they can’t consider c 14 a reliable source of dating.

    Apart from complexity being relative(possibly evolution of thoughts or learning), people generally need physical evidence to back up their “stories”. Either there is confusion with the term physical evidence or Nihilism is overlooked by many, simply because it hurts the small child inside them. The real world is scary, but no one has to do it alone. If such a thought is said to be by any religious belief, it can be countered by an uncountable number of examples. It is interesting when that belief evolves to suite the world around it just so it can survive. “Thousands… not billions” could not really even exist three or four centuries ago, simply because it was heresy; even if it does support the belief.

    I am afraid that this discusion on carbon-14 is back to where it started, just there or otherwise neutral. If anyone says otherwise read this previous quote:

    “One thing I am learning is that people can always create an explanation for any given piece of data. There is always a story to be told. As one story dies out another, more complex one, can be made in its place that fits all currently known data like a glove. This is why often times people judge a theory’s merit based on how it has survived the test of time. When we get down to the level of straining current human understanding, radioisotope dating becomes truly ambiguous. It could go either way and I would hope that no one is claiming they have an air-tight case. Simply to point out that a theory is not absolutely proven allows people to use their free will and decide for themselves. If it seems more believable that the current explanation is true then that is a person’s choice to make, I am just glad to encourage them to look into it.”

    I would like to add that the book mentioned was sent to me unknowingly. It was sent by Raeliyah without me asking for it. I figured such things should be mentioned in discussions. I never really liked passing notes in class, it’s a little underhanded and information should be free and available to anyone. However, if it doesn’t retain water, why consider it?


  14. It’s called a “gift.” No one forced you to read it, you were free to accept or reject it as you chose. If I was really being underhanded, there wouldn’t have been any identification associated with it.

    -Raeliyah, was trying to be nice…!


  15. It’s been about two years now and those words still sting. We can try and apply our intellect to something, but ultimately we are still emotional creatures. When I first wrote this website I tried to treat it from a purely intellectual stand point. I applied the same strategy to my life and I paid the cost for my unrealistic expectations. People aren’t solely intellectual, in fact intellect isn’t even the dominant side.

    Why didn’t I reply? I guess I got tired. What’s the point in a never ending argument? I guess on an intellectual side I could point out that the diamonds have been sitting there for a long time in the old earth time line. I could also reaffirm that samples were taken from all over the world at different depths and all came up with roughly the same c14 amount despite the lack of radiation at their location. I imagine we could eventually get into the fact that diamonds evaporate slowly. But really, where would any of that go?

    On the emotional side, I really don’t know what to say. I know a lot of people have good reasons to feel animosity towards Christians because of things that have happened in their past. I know it’s increasingly common to view any religion as the anathema to science and that this view is constantly propounded whether you really have any stake in it or not. I know, in particular, that even without all these obstacles the God of the Bible comes off as being a mean spirited dictator. So who would really want evidence that he exists? No thanks.

    I guess I don’t have any good answers on the emotional end other than my silence.


    • FYI, the RATE team’s radiocarbon analysis is flawed. In short, what they claim to be “intrinsic radiocarbon” in the samples is a combination of sample contamination and measurement background.

      Modern radiocarbon measurements are extremely sensitive and never measure a true “zero” value. They always measure a non-zero amount of “background” that must be corrected for. Some of this is due to true contamination of the sample (either in situ or in collection), some is due to the complex steps required to prepare the sample for measurement, and some is due to backgrounds in the measurement system (either radiocarbon contamination or instrumentation “noise”).

      If anyone is interested in digging into the gory details, a detailed analysis of the RATE radiocarbon claims is available from these sites:
      http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/origins/carbon-kb.htm
      http://www.reasons.org/geology-earth-science/rate-study/rates-radiocarbon-intrinsic-or-contamination
      http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/rate-critique.html

      Note that Dr. Baumgardner of the RATE team responded to a much briefer and earlier version of this analysis, with many thinking that he had “rebutted” it. The present analysis answers not only the original RATE claims, but also the additional claims raised in Baumgardner’s “rebuttal”.


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