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Over the years, carbon 14 dating has also found applications in geology, hydrology, geophysics, atmospheric science, oceanography, paleoclimatology and even biomedicine.

Radiocarbon, or carbon 14, is an isotope of the element carbon that is unstable and weakly radioactive. Carbon 14 is continually being formed in the upper atmosphere by the effect of cosmic ray neutrons on nitrogen 14 atoms.

The radiocarbon age of a certain sample of unknown age can be determined by measuring its carbon 14 content and comparing the result to the carbon 14 activity in modern and background samples.

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Over the years, other secondary radiocarbon standards have been made.

Radiocarbon activity of materials in the background is also determined to remove its contribution from results obtained during a sample analysis.

This scintillator produces a flash of light when it interacts with a beta particle.

A vial with a sample is passed between two photomultipliers, and only when both devices register the flash of light that a count is made.

There are three principal techniques used to measure carbon 14 content of any given sample— gas proportional counting, liquid scintillation counting, and accelerator mass spectrometry.

Gas proportional counting is a conventional radiometric dating technique that counts the beta particles emitted by a given sample. In this method, the carbon sample is first converted to carbon dioxide gas before measurement in gas proportional counters takes place.

A radiocarbon measurement is termed a conventional radiocarbon age (CRA).

The CRA conventions include (a) usage of the Libby half-life, (b) usage of Oxalic Acid I or II or any appropriate secondary standard as the modern radiocarbon standard, (c) correction for sample isotopic fractionation to a normalized or base value of -25.0 per mille relative to the ratio of carbon 12/carbon 13 in the carbonate standard VPDB – Cretaceous belemnite formation at Peedee in South Carolina, (d) zero BP (Before Present) is defined as AD 1950, and (e) the assumption that global radiocarbon levels are constant.

The method does not count beta particles but the number of carbon atoms present in the sample and the proportion of the isotopes. Samples that have been radiocarbon dated since the inception of the method include charcoal, wood, twigs, seeds, bones, shells, leather, peat, lake mud, soil, hair, pottery, pollen, wall paintings, corals, blood residues, fabrics, paper or parchment, resins, and water, among others.

Physical and chemical pretreatments are done on these materials to remove possible contaminants before they are analyzed for their radiocarbon content.

Standard errors are also reported in a radiocarbon dating result, hence the “±” values.

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