Physicists explain the long, useful lifetime of carbon-14

May 26, 2011
Iowa State University physicists, left to right, Pieter Maris and James Vary have used supercomputing power to solve the puzzle of the long, slow decay of carbon-14. That long half-life makes carbon-14 a useful tool to determine the ages of skeletons and other artifacts. Credit: Photo by Bob Elbert/Iowa State University

The long, slow decay of carbon-14 allows archaeologists to accurately date the relics of history back to 60,000 years.

And while the dating technique is well known and understood (the ratio of carbon-14 to other is measured to determine the age of objects containing the remnants of any living thing), the reason for carbon-14's slow decay has not been understood. Why, exactly, does carbon-14 have a half-life of nearly 6,000 years while other light have half-lives of minutes or seconds? (Half-life is the time it takes for the nuclei in a sample to decay to half the original amount.)

"This has been a very significant puzzle to nuclear physicists for several decades," said James Vary, an Iowa State University professor of physics and astronomy. "And the underlying reason turned out to be a fairly exotic one."

The reason involves the strong three-nucleon forces (a nucleon is either a neutron or a proton) within each carbon-14 nucleus. It's all about the simultaneous interactions among any three nucleons and the resulting influence on the decay of carbon-14. And it's no easy task to simulate those interactions.

In this case, it took about 30 million processor-hours on the Jaguar supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Jaguar has a peak performance of 2.3 quadrillion calculations per second, a speed that topped the list of the world's top 500 supercomputers when the carbon-14 simulations were run.

The research project's findings were recently published online by the journal Physical Review Letters.

Vary and Pieter Maris, an Iowa State research staff scientist in physics and astronomy, are the lead authors of the paper. Collaborating on the paper are Petr Navratil of TRIUMF (Canada's National Laboratory for Particle and in Vancouver) and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California; Erich Ormand of Lawrence Livermore National Lab; plus Hai Ah Nam and David Dean of Oak Ridge National Lab. The research was supported by contracts and grants from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.

Vary, in explaining the findings, likes to remind people that two subatomic particles with different charges will attract each other. Particles with the same charges repel each other. Well, what happens when there are three particles interacting that's different from the simple addition of their interactions as pairs?

The strong three-nucleon interactions are complicated, but it turns out a lot happens to extend the decay of carbon 14 atoms.

"The whole story doesn't come together until you include the three-particle forces," said Vary. "The elusive three-nucleon forces contribute in a major way to this fact of life that carbon-14 lives so long."

Maris said the three-particle forces work together to cancel the effects of the pairwise forces governing the decay of carbon-14. As a result, the carbon-14 half-life is extended by many orders of magnitude. And that's why carbon-14 is a very useful tool for determining the age of objects.

To get that answer, Maris said researchers needed a billion-by-billion matrix and a computer capable of handling its 30 trillion non-zero elements. They also needed to develop a computer code capable of simulating the entire carbon-14 nucleus, including the roles of the three-nucleon forces. Furthermore, they needed to perform the corresponding simulations for nitrogen-14, the daughter nucleus of the carbon-14 decay. And, they needed to figure out how the computer code could be scaled up for use on the Jaguar petascale supercomputer.

"It was six months of work pressed into three months of time," Maris said.

But it was enough for the nuclear physicists to explain the long half-life of . And now they say there are more puzzles to solve:

"Everybody now knows about these three-nucleon forces," Vary said. "But what about four-nucleon forces? This does open the door for more study."

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User comments : 33

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Skultch
4.6 / 5 (9) May 26, 2011
Creationists? Any thoughts? What is your argument against the reliability of carbon dating again? That's not a rhetorical question. I'll take your non answer as a sign of conversion to Atheism. haha j/k :)
ShotmanMaslo
3.5 / 5 (8) May 26, 2011
That's not a rhetorical question. I'll take your non answer as a sign of conversion to Atheism.


Lets not make it a religion vs. atheism issue. There are plenty of religious people that do accept an old Earth.
thermodynamics
5 / 5 (7) May 26, 2011
I think Skultch has it right. This is exactly the time the creationists should step up to the plate. ShotmanMaslo: Skultch is talking about the creationists on the site that spout off on the reasons that carbon 14 dating is wrong. Here is their chance to refute this article or shut up for a while. Let's hear if from the creationists.
Physphan
5 / 5 (3) May 26, 2011
C'mon, Skultch. Don't y'all know by now that a huge cloud of vapor once enveloped the earth and, among other things, accelerated the decay of carbon- 14?
Next?
\end sarcasm
COCamper
1.5 / 5 (6) May 26, 2011
The assumptions upon which C14 dating is founded have to be taken into account. I appreciate the work described in the article, but when people make comments like those above, I wonder why people have such a strong tendency to make conclusions beyond the scope of the data or in this case beyond the scope of the article.

Assuming atmospheric C-14 concentrations to be equal through out time is a huge assumption. Libby warned of the weaknesses of the method. In the absence of a solid dating method, it seems people have grasped this one while simultaneously releasing its weaknesses.

Ethelred
4.2 / 5 (11) May 27, 2011
The assumptions upon which C14 dating is founded have to be taken into account.
Which assumptions? That C14 has a known half-life? That is formed in the upper atmosphere? That there CAN be contamination but it is a known and accounted for POTENTIAL problem? Or perhaps that it has been calibrated back to 30,000 years ago?

but when people make comments like those above, I wonder why people have such a strong tendency to make conclusions beyond the scope of the data
I didn't see that done. What is that is bothering you? People preferring facts to fantasy?

Assuming atmospheric C-14 concentrations to be equal through out time is a huge assumption
Not an assumption that anyone made as we can only measure back to about 70,000 years and it has been calibrated by trees to over 8,000 and a lake to over 30,000 years.

Libby warned of the weaknesses of the method.
The weaknesses are known and fully dealt with.>>
Ethelred
4.3 / 5 (12) May 27, 2011
In the absence of a solid dating method
C14 IS solid. It isn't usable past 70,000 years or in area where contamination is likely or with carbon that wasn't from the atmosphere but it IS solid within those KNOWN limits.

t seems people have grasped this one while simultaneously releasing its weaknesses.
It seems that you want to be vague about the weaknesses and pretend that you are the only that knows of them.

Be specific. Just what weakness do YOU see as having been overlooked by the people that know and use the methods? Pretending that there is a controversy where there is none is a typical Creationist trick. This sort of disingenuous behavior as advocated by the Discovery Asylum has always struck me as a fitting the usual definitions of the sin of false witness.>>
Ethelred
4.3 / 5 (11) May 27, 2011
If you would like to debate this please do so. I really get tired of chicken hit and run Creationist that think they showed them Evilutionists a thing or two and the they disappear for fear of seeing a post that might open their tightly shuttered minds. I like the debates. It is SO rare to find a Creationist with guts and a true belief. Mostly they run and hide. Even the ones that frequently post here refuse to engage in reasoned discourse. Which is a clear indication that they really don't believe the stuff they are pushing.

This challenge is probably a waste of time. Only one Creationist in dozens has any guts.

Ethelred
Ethelred
4.6 / 5 (9) May 27, 2011
Thank you PS3 for showing that YOU are one of the Creationists that is too chicken to debate me. Of course I already knew that but now it clear to the others reading this thread that the person that gave me the ones has not the courage to engage in a reasoned debate.

So since you are so sure that I am wrong how about you grow some conjones and post some evidence to support those ones. Evidence that shows there a world wide flood covering the highest mountain will do nicely to kick off the debate.

I think I won't hold my breath waiting. Instead I will give PS3 ones at a geometrically increasing rate for each one.

So that is 1 then 2 then 4 and for the other thread that will be 8. total is 15 ones for you PS3. Unless you are willing to back up those ones with an actual discussion. 24 Hours starting at 3AM Pacific. Then the ONES will start. And if you give THIS a one I will give an extra doubling so that will 16 and 32 for another 48 ones.

I can back all the ones I give out.

Ethelred
KBK
1.4 / 5 (5) May 27, 2011
I find it interesting that no-one is bringing up the study that came out recently about (potentially) NEW particles (condition?) being emitted from the sun that makes mincemeat of any attempt to use carbon dating? That this new emission is changing carbon decay rates?

This was not some fly by night study. It was top flight organizations, ie similar to NIST and Harvard, Caltech, MIT, etc---the like.

Very prestigious, very system-centric.

As in:NOT A JOKE.

Look it up.
Ethelred
4.3 / 5 (6) May 27, 2011
Look it up.
OK.

Lets see what information do have for that search YOU are unwilling to do.

NEW particles (condition?)
emitted from the sun
mincemeat of any attempt to use carbon - I that crap is safe to ignore for the search. I doubt 'mincemeat' was used in any study outside a rather bad kitchen.

That this new emission is changing carbon decay rates?
You couldn't be bothered to post a link?

Fortunatly 'NEW particles' was enough. And it isn't corroborated AND it doesn't change C14 because that has been calibrated with tree rings and a lake that has regular layering on an anual basis for the last 30,000 years. So the 'particle' hasn't effected C14 significantly if at all. I doubt that its a new particle, an unsuspected effect of one neutrino or another seems a bit more likely.

For instance
http://news.disco...cle.html

More
Ethelred
4.6 / 5 (10) May 27, 2011
But as you can see, carbon dating makes one huge assumption: radioactive decay rates remain constant and always have been constant.
Which is false. Its not an assumption due to the calibration.

Next
Experimental error and environmental conditions have all been ruled out -- the decay rates are changing throughout the year in a predictable pattern.
The key there is that it averages out over the year and decay rates are produced by experiment not by theory. For a short lived isotope it might be significant but C14 has a long half life and had to measured for a long time to get the accuracy needed.

This is the Stanford article
http://news.stanf...310.html

And a link to hmmm oh yes right here. And I not only remember it I posted on it. There are 175 posts.
http://www.physor...438.html

And this one considers the dating implications. Doesn't see any real problem.
http://dinosaurc1...ecay.htm

More
Ethelred
4.6 / 5 (10) May 27, 2011
So while interesting it won't have much if any effect on C14 dating. Sure isn't going to turn the Earth into a 6000 year old planet. Isn't going to make a nonexistent Flood real either.

Next time post your own links.

Ethelred
Skultch
5 / 5 (3) May 27, 2011
Creationists? Any thoughts? What is your argument against the reliability of carbon dating again? That's not a rhetorical question. I'll take your non answer as a sign of conversion to Atheism. haha j/k :)


My question about the reliability was a genuine one. I was honestly trying to not be sarcastic or snarky. I guess I should have said YECs. The last line is just a joke. That's it.

I really thought there was another argument they had, but I can't remember.

The more dead air I hear, the more I am convinced that this is the only evidence against YECs anyone ever need. It's also more evidence at the total disrespect given to the sum of human scientific knowledge. If you don't trust this, anything is suspect. Science seems simply ignored by YECs. Because of this, they should be no more relevant or respected than the craziest conspiracy theorist. It's possibly the most far fetched conspiracy theory of all time to think our whole body of /knowledge/ is suspect.
Ethelred
5 / 5 (5) May 27, 2011
Science seems simply ignored by YECs.
No. Well, not all of them. Some ARE aware of the evidence and they have no evidence to overturn reality. So instead they tell lies about science.

See Marjon, Kevin and many others here for examples. I think that trying to denigrate science is why there is so much overlap between Creationists and the Global Warming deniers. Science shows their beliefs wrong so instead of trying to use science to support them they try make it didn't happen.

Ethelred
KBK
2.3 / 5 (3) May 28, 2011
I find it interesting that such a thing does not crack more heads open -- as to the nature of the universe being outside of the current paradigm.

This would, obviously, via logic, remain true until human understanding extends to the scope of the issue, which is an answer that logically assumes some form of infinity, with regard to knowledge of the full state of the universe.

Ie, right now we have some interesting theories within a small bubble of understanding and a lot of darkness beyond that. A darkness that will, by it's very nature, at some time in the future and 'at any given time', reduce known theories to rubble of some sort.

Logic states that if one desires to find the new, they should consider that the highest success rates in finding the new...will occur when one steps completely outside the known theoretical (there are no 'laws' in the universe) parameters.

The considerations that the find 'brings' to the table breaks the frame of reference.

Start again. At the bottom.
jamesrm
1 / 5 (2) May 28, 2011
What KBK is/was getting at

"In one experiment, a team at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., was monitoring a chunk of manganese-54 inside a radiation detector box to precisely measure the isotopes half-life. At 9:37 p.m. on December 12, 2006, the instruments recorded a dip in radioactivity. At the same time, satellites on the day side of the Earth detected X-rays coming from the sun, signaling the beginning of a solar flare."

I hate the idea of giving the "Inelegant Design" dead-enders any ammo (so many self inflicted wounds) but The cause is unknown and seems to be linked the suns output of ?; Neutrinos was one guess

Rgds
James

Seems you beat me to it :(
hush1
1 / 5 (3) May 28, 2011
Yes. Bravo. KBK. Let's have some fun, shall we?

Let's pretend. (Kids of all ages do.) Let us begin...

Born Agains, unit! There is hope!
Feyman, (paraphased) has risen from the dead, not Jesus Christ!
Let us hear from Feyman repeating himself (paraphrased):

"You know guys, it has always bothered me. Decay.
The computer broke a sweat. And Nature did this in a blink of eye -(Actually faster than that. You all know what I mean.)
Either our language to describe Nature is really shitty and correct anyway, or we really do need to clean up our language."

;)
hush1
not rated yet May 28, 2011
lol
I never rate. Well, almost never.
The rating encourages misuse.
(Those clever enough to exploit social anxiety disorder.) lol
Ethelred
5 / 5 (4) May 29, 2011
I find it interesting that such a thing does not crack more heads open
Why? Its interesting but it needs more research and the original work was done years ago. I really don't see why neutrinos shouldn't have a small effect like that. It is a small effect and only with some isotopes.

as to the nature of the universe being outside of the current paradigm.
Maybe. Maybe its just an unexpected property of some flavors of neutrinos. Neutrinos changing kind was surprising so why not some other stuff.

which is an answer that logically assumes some form of infinity
That is NOT logical.

Ie, right now we have some interesting theories within a small bubble of understanding
Or we have some useful theories that work most of the time pretty well. It might be that the Universe is just a bunch of properties with no particular reason for being except that can.

More
Ethelred
5 / 5 (5) May 29, 2011
A darkness that will, by it's very nature, at some time in the future and 'at any given time', reduce known theories to rubble of some sort.
Or may turn out to be a boogieman in a kids closet and things really are pretty as they seem and just need refinement. I doubt that but is at least as possible as yours. Newton was not reduced to rubble by GR.

Logic states
There is an appropriate line in the Princess Bride. I don't think that word means what you seem to think it means. Logic that is.

..will occur when one steps completely outside the known theoretical (there are no 'laws' in the universe) parameters.
Sure isn't what Einstein did with SR. He assumed that Maxwell's theories of electromagnetism should be universal no matter what speed you were traveling at. In some sense he was trying to keep Maxwell IN the box.

More
Ethelred
5 / 5 (4) May 29, 2011
The considerations that the find 'brings' to the table breaks the frame of reference.
No. It can easily be an interaction of neutrinos and some specific isotopes.

Start again. At the bottom.
Would you care to clarify that just a bit? That is a meaningless noise unless you can tell us what the hell you mean by 'bottom'. Does it mean that you are an ass man? As opposed to a top or boob guy? Or perhaps you like to deal cards from the bottom. We can go a lot ways from something so vague. If the bottom requires research at the Plank level I am afraid you should look into long term cryosleep as the energies involved are way beyond what can be done in the Solar System much less a lab on Earth.

Ethelred
kevinrtrs
1 / 5 (6) May 29, 2011
@Skultch:
Science seems simply ignored by YECs

YECs do practise science. They just make a certain distinction between what is observable and testable in the present versus what one needs to infer about the past based on certain assumptions.
As for Carbon-14 dating: it's actually a veritable force in the YECs armoury against evolutionary thought. For instance, most if not all carbon containing fossils still have C-14 in them, despite all protests and squirms by evolutionists. The problem for evolutionists is that because everything seems to contain C14 [ and a lot of these studies were done by evolutionists] they can't just write it off as contamination. This is the dirty little secret that is not openly spouted in the media.
Perhaps you should go and read what YECs have to say about C-14 before dissing them in public. Have a look at their websites creation dot com and answers in genesis dot com. Then come back and tell the world about it.
Ethelred
5 / 5 (5) May 29, 2011
YECs do practise science
False. They abuse it and lie a lot. Kind of like you.

They just make a certain distinction between what is observable and testable
No. They try to obfuscate the truth.

versus what one needs to infer about the past based on certain assumptions.
They make up bad assumptions and make inferences based on their religious beliefs.

As for Carbon-14 dating: it's actually a veritable force in the YECs armoury against evolutionary thought.
What an utter lie. YECs have NEVER used C14 dating to prove the Earth is young. They simply tell lies about it.

For instance, most if not all carbon containing fossils still have C-14 in them
Like that one. Its a lie. Anything over 70,000 years old can't be C14 tested.

despite all protests and squirms by evolutionists.
Telling the truth is not squirming.

More
Ethelred
5 / 5 (5) May 29, 2011
he problem for evolutionists is that because everything seems to contain C14 [ and a lot of these studies were done by evolutionists]
Would you care to post a link. I have NEVER seen a YEC make that claim before.

they can't just write it off as contamination.
But you can't post a case to support you so there isn't anything to write off.

This is the dirty little secret that is not openly spouted in the media.
Its a plain lie.

Perhaps you should go and read what YECs have to say about C-14 before dissing them in public.
I have. They lie. A lot. They lie about ALL dating. Even tree ring dating.

Then come back and tell the world about it.
Seen them. They lie.

So how about YOU post a link that supports that claim of stuff over 70,000 years old, thus disproving YEC, with C14. Contaminated artifacts need not apply. You claimed ALL and that the REAL scientists have done the work in some cases. So give a link.

Ethelred
CSharpner
5 / 5 (4) May 30, 2011
Kev,

Now, AGAIN, for the unteenth time: If the universe is only 6000 years old, why is it that we see objects BILLIONS of light years old?

Poof! I just made Kev disappear.
Skultch
not rated yet May 30, 2011
Logic states

There is an appropriate line in the Princess Bride. I don't think that word means what you seem to think it means.


Inconceivable!!!!

YECs do practise science. They just make a certain distinction between what is observable and testable in the present versus what one needs to infer about the past based on certain assumptions.


I don't get this EXTREME distrust of the inferences. Yeah, we can't be 100% about any individual inference. However, the body of knowledge all fits so well. It supports itself. That, to me, trumps any singular argument that merely "castes doubt" on an individual scientific claim. It's not like the YEC's arguments are rock solid, either. There's doubt on both sides of any of these evo/cre topics. It's actually the number of undebatable topics on the evo side that make YEC's a rather small opponent.
Skultch
5 / 5 (1) May 30, 2011
Perhaps you should go and read what YECs have to say about C-14 before dissing them in public. Have a look at their websites creation dot com and answers in genesis dot com. Then come back and tell the world about it.


Still cracking away at it. Please forgive me for taking my time with it. I can't just waste a whole day reading YEC sites. So far, my question is, what are the assertions YOU think are still valid? So far, I've seen a lot that Ethelred has responded to, and I'm inclined to believe those. I've seen some unsupported claims afaik like:

The earth has a magnetic field around it which helps protect us from harmful radiation from outer space. This magnetic field is decaying (getting weaker). http:
//www.answersingenesis
.org/articles/nab/does-c14-disprove-the-bible
retrosurf
1 / 5 (1) May 30, 2011
I actually come here for the science, and until recently that's
what I got when I read the articles (and the comments). Of
course, it wasn't all science, because some number of the
articles were just press releases posing as science.

Physorg is more problematic these days. The invasion of the
believers was bad enough, but now an Atheist has used the
comment section to call out Believers for another stupid
tag-team grudge match.

It's just more noise. I posit that no Believer or Atheist has
ever changed their position in these discussions. What is the
point of having that discussion here?

If I wanted to listen to what the Believers said, I'd go to
Church or watch some charlatan on TV. Please don't encourage
them to speak here.
hush1
not rated yet May 30, 2011
Sound advice.

@CSharpner
The antagonist took offense at the spelling:
Unteenth vs. umpteenth.

Surely, the untenable position that your logic was responsible for a non reply, defies logic.
:)
CSharpner
5 / 5 (5) May 31, 2011
It's just more noise. I posit that no Believer or Atheist has
ever changed their position in these discussions. What is the
point of having that discussion here?

It's almost cerainly true that no participants in the debates here have or will change their minds on thr creationists vs evolutionists scuffles, but the question of what is the point has been brought up before, pondered, discussed, and concluded that when someone posts something wrong or illogical, the responsible thing to do is to publicly respond for the benefit of other readers who may not be tied to one side or the other.

My particular responses to kev are to explain the failed logic of his posts, the correct logic, then to make him go away by asking the same question that guarantees he stops posting on that thread (the opposite of feeding)

But, as for requesting the YECs to join in, which is certainly feeding the trolls, and I try to avoid it (continued...)
CSharpner
5 / 5 (5) May 31, 2011
(Continued...)
I have a hard time complaining when someone does feed the trolls because the entertainment value is so high. And for that, I apologize, even though I try not to feed the trolls, but probably do from time to time and just can't help but enjoy watching the feeders make minced meet of the YECs arguments. :)
Skultch
5 / 5 (1) May 31, 2011
When it comes down to it, I think most of us are here to learn and to be entertained. Sure, there's some ideological masturbation going on, plenty in fact, but as long as everyone is learning, I don't think it matters much even if we get even more entrenched in our world views. We would anyway; without Physorg. I'd like to think I'm still open to changing my mind, but I'm ok if that's a delusion. It is what it is, and the best I can do is try.