How Does Carbon Dating Work?

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It starts with a look, a passing glance between strangers: one blazing through the cosmos at the speed of light, the other drifting slowly with its head in the clouds. The collision is unexpected but somehow inevitable, a union that promises some of the sweetness that lay beyond the rainbow. The heavier partner is excited beyond measure, active and hopeful. It never occurs to them that their marriage is borne of chance, of probability, of particle calculations drawn up on a chalkboard in a dusty old professor’s office. Density is not familiar to either half of the couple. 

A cosmic-ray-generated neutron is absorbed by a nitrogen-14 atom. 

The everyday habits, the humdrum quirks that can’t be seen in a mirror, dig deeper and deeper into the foundations, cracking the joists of their carefully-constructed home. Their split is violent, affecting everyone around them. The energetic outburst pushes them farther and farther apart, colliding with the lives of anyone in the danger zone. They don’t care nor do they notice the damage they do. The nonsense life of false promises is broken, and one partner moves away light and positive, the other simmering with unresolved rage. 

The intermediate-state heavy nitrogen decays into carbon-14 and a proton. 

Image courtesy of Brooklyn College.

The heavier partner can’t pinpoint exactly what’s missing from its life, but can no longer draw hope from the wells of its spirit. It looks in the familiar places but they no longer hold the meaning they once did. They belong to a childhood long since past, a time of magic when anything was possible and the shackles of reality were mistaken for rings of power. The heavy partner wants to find a solution, a cough-syrup remedy that will make the pain disappear, make the memories disappear. Where it can’t find quality, it goes for quantity, descending deeper into the maelstrom as though that might calm the turbulence.  

The carbon-14 atom combines with two oxygen atoms to form carbon dioxide (CO2). 

It was quick. It was painless compared to what came before. Stability is brought on through multiple partners, who each ask for more, but it’s as though the heavy partner can give it all now. Sharing comes naturally, since it no longer associates itself with any part of its being. The two excitable and demanding playmates drag the heavy one all over — though it is no longer bearing the brunt of the weight. It becomes lost in a world too far beyond the threshold of its ability to care. It becomes nothing more than a number, the parts making up the puzzle of its proportions: fourteen. 14 doesn’t seek to be anything other than a number, and after a time, it doesn’t see how it ever could be. Eventually the playmates are lost, but 14 couldn’t say when or where or how. What surrounds 14 is not its environment. It is a cloak of coal, soot, and smoke, insubstantial but obscure. 

The carbon-14 atom is introduced into organic matter through photosynthesis (producing O2 out of CO2, leaving the carbon atom in the biosphere). 

14’s new life is rife with activity, and through its thick-headed tunnel vision it glimpses flickers of others much like itself, others who were born in the stars but decayed into obsidian. Others whose hearts were broken, who don’t know what relationships are, and who have forgotten. 14 also sees others who have not been shattered, who bear the weight of the world somehow with much less on their shoulders. The twelves, 14 thinks, are a breed of ignoramuses too naive to function in the real world, too airy to be practical. 

The numbness in 14’s being thaws into a tropical storm. Rapid outbursts threaten to take over 14’s calm and monotonic life. The twelves are all around it, in higher numbers. The others like 14 don’t offer much solace; they simply stoke the flames. It doesn’t matter that there are some 14s who have worked hard to get where they are. What matters is the twelves, young upstarts fresh out of the frying pan, are stepping through life not just unscathed, but content. 

The others tell 14 that these miscreants will soon get their come-uppance, but it never comes. 14’s blood slowly rises to a boil, frothing and roiling over the edge of what 14 had thought were dead parts of its soul. 14 hasn’t felt this strongly about anything since that first betrayal, ages and extinctions ago. 

The ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 atoms in the biosphere is roughly constant, assuming a constant flux of cosmic rays. 


Friends say to 14, “Don’t give into your weakness.” The part of 14 that most wants to give up, call it quits, throw in the towel, feels so right and yet societally so wrong. 14’s peers, few though they may be, would think it an unrighteous path to step away from the cogs of the machine, the life that is so precariously balanced on everyone’s collective efforts. “If everyone did as you’re planning,” they say, “there would be anarchy.”

14 doesn’t want everyone to do it. The twelves seem content — maybe if 14 only found the right venue for its abilities, it could learn to feel again. Learn to dissipate the hot mass before it destroys itself or those around it. The weakness tugs at 14, beckons, calls, and promises hints of the life it never wanted to believe in again. At first, 14 ignores the hints, and follows friends’ advice. Continuing on just makes the siren call stronger, however, and 14 yearns for freedom like a captain longs for the sea. 

Maybe five thousand years have passed, maybe ten. Maybe not more than a few weeks. 14 couldn’t mark the time at which resolve snapped, was leaned against a log and stamped into splinters. The surge of energy, the flow of awareness, pain, joy, relief, fear — is almost too much. 14 never would have believed it could have survived another encounter like this one.

The weak nuclear force pulls carbon-14 apart by beta-decay, releasing an electron, a neutrino, and leaving behind the starting ingredient, nitrogen-14. 

14 looks down at itself. It is still 14, but the negative energy has vanished, rushing off in a silent scream across the universe. It is too staggering to believe, too great to be real. The heavy partner is now the heavy one, the same as it once was so many years ago before the traffic and tumult of time broke and bent its soul bonds. 

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14 laughs. And laughs and laughs. The absurdity of it all is that if 14 counts all the parts, all the constituents and sub-components, it is identical to when it first began, drifting about without an eye for anything below or beyond. But hidden deep within those parts is a history, an indelible script of roller coasters and merry-go-rounds for better or worse. 14 is as free and clear as ever, and looking in a crowd, you wouldn’t be able to perceive the difference. 

The crowd. The thought sobers 14, brings it back to a place of introspection and meditation. 14 hadn’t marked its own passage through the nether, its walk through the fire. It had only endured, unthinking. If 14 ended up in the same place as when it all began, couldn’t the same thing happen again? Couldn’t it happen to others?

There had to be an answer. Others had to know. 14 began widening its gaze, noticing patterns and stripes that the wisdom of its years permitted seeing. In the flowing organic matter, the population was kept constant, the ratio of youthful twelves to 14s kept the same. But as the flow stopped, as matter lost life, the population dwindled. The old 14s were transformed and erased from memory, joining 14 to watch from afar. 14 was determined that this circle of life be used for some higher purpose, some richer meaning. 

Carbon-14 is replenished to maintain the same ratio in living organisms. Death stops this replenishment, meaning that the half-life or time it takes for half a carbon-14 sample to decay (5,730 years) can be used in conjunction with the current amount of carbon-14 to date the corpses of organisms. 

The careful records 14 kept began to take shape. The randomness took on order. The impossibilities took on probability. There seemed to be places where the information could be shared, demonstrated, to lessen the pain of travel. The passage needn’t be a burden. The journey could be a blessing. This was the gift 14 gave its people, the promise that whatever was happening was not the end. 

14’s gift would be felt in a realm far, far away where, under other circumstances, the senses of protons and trials of electrons might never be felt.

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