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For example, if a sample emits radiation indicating the presence of 10 carbon-14 atoms and we know from its mass that it originally must have contained 20, that means the plant or animal from which the sample was taken died about 5,730 years ago.Eventually, however, all the carbon-14 atoms will decay—or at least enough of them will that the amount of radiation they emit can no longer be distinguished from ordinary background radiation.Although the number of carbon-14 atoms varies from one organism to another, the of carbon-14 atoms to carbon-12 atoms is basically constant—and roughly the same as the proportion found in the atmosphere.

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Likewise, the proportion of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in the environment must have remained fairly constant.

And in any given sample, one must be certain that contaminants from other time periods are not present—a sometimes-tricky issue.

More importantly, though, the accuracy of carbon dating rests on several crucial assumptions.

For one thing, the rate of carbon-14 production in the atmosphere (and thus the level of cosmic ray activity) must have been pretty much constant for the past several dozen millennia.

High in the atmosphere, cosmic rays strike nitrogen atoms, producing a radioactive carbon isotope known as carbon-14 (or .

Carbon-14, along with the more common, stable (nonradioactive) carbon isotopes carbon-12 and carbon-13, combine with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide.

When an organism dies, it stops acquiring new carbon-14 atoms.

Given that the ratio of carbon-14 atoms to carbon-12 atoms in a living thing is a constant, one can determine the number of each in a sample of organic matter (using sensitive equipment to detect the amount of radiation remaining), and then do a little bit of math to determine how long it’s been since the organism expired.

Speaking as a layperson, rather than a professional in science or theology, I find the evidence supporting the reliability of carbon dating vastly more compelling than the evidence supporting a 7,000-year-old Earth.

But then, I don’t have an axe to grind, and even I did, carbon dating couldn’t tell us how old it was.

As a matter of fact, increased hydrocarbon emissions over the past century have greatly increased the amount of carbon-12 in the atmosphere, while nuclear detonations during the past 50 years or so have increased the amount of carbon-14.

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