# Carbon dating coal

Radiocarbon dating—also known as carbon-14 dating—is a technique used by archaeologists and historians to determine the age of organic material.

Carbon has an atomic number of 6, an atomic weight of 12.011, and has three isotopes: carbon-12, carbon-13, and carbon-14.

(The numbers 12, 13 and 14 refer to the total number of protons plus neutrons in the atom's nucleus.

Thus carbon-14 has six protons and eight neutrons.) Carbon-12 is by far the most abundant carbon isotope, and carbon-12 and -13 are both stable.

But carbon-14 is slightly radioactive: it will spontaneously decay into nitrogen-14 by emitting an anti-neutrino and an electron, with a half-life of 5730 years.

The theory behind radiocarbon dating is as follows: Why doesn't the carbon-14 in the air decay along with terrestrial carbon? The trick is that radioactive carbon-14 is continually replenished in a complex reaction that involves high-energy cosmic rays striking the upper atmosphere.

In this process, nitrogen-14 (7 protons and 7 neutrons) gains a neutron and loses a proton, producing carbon-14 (6 protons and 8 neutrons).

The proportion of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in the atmosphere therefore remains relatively stable at about 1.5 parts per billion.

One of the implied assumptions in radiocarbon dating is that levels of atmospheric carbon-14 have remained constant over time.

This turns out not to be exactly true, and so there is an inherent error between a raw "radiocarbon date" and the true calendar date.

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