As the preceding summary has done only little to clarify the scientific dating processes for us laymen, before going on to non-radioactive dating methods we should say more about radiocarbon dating and C14 in particular. My preliminary evaluation of the method and process is that it is good for dating specimens from about 5,000 years ago to the present, just under the half-life of C14. This half-life too needs more explanation. The term “half-life” was coined in the early 1900s to describe the time it takes for an atomic element, or its isotope, to decay. While the term should be used specifically for those rates of decay which are constant, the term has also been used to describe decay rates which are known to vary. This process is not as simple as it may appear because there can be many half-lives, in just about every case much more than two. Here is a rough illustration of the process: As you can see, it takes much more than 2X5700= 11,400 years for the decay to be completed. This is a strange use of mathematics, even somewhat paradoxical, but in any case highly irregular as basis for so important a scientific theory. I am, in fact, reminded of one of Zeno of Elea’s most famous paradoxes. As you will recall this one was about the possibilities of an arrow hitting its target. Zeno accepted only one premise in forming the riddle, it being that for any distance to be traveled, a half-way point, a mid-point, must be traversed. How then, wondered Zeno, could that arrow ever hit its target? As with most ancient ideas, Zeno’s paradoxes have been taken to task time and again by more modern minds of various merit. Still, I think it fair to say, the riddle remains at the very least a problem of mathematics, and its relationship to actual space and time. The parallel I wish to make is with Zeno’s paradox and the understanding of the usage of the term “half-life” to describe the decay of atomic particles. If we accept the way this “half-life” works, it seems that an atom will, according to Zeno, never totally decay. Yet we know the arrow will indeed hit its target, in my opinion because the velocity of the arrow can no longer overcome a midpoint, to be found somewhere in the target, a fact evidenced by various arrowheads being buried to various depths in their targets.
Now two things need be born in mind before we compare Zeno’s arrow to the decay of an atom. These are the laws of the Conservation of Matter and the Conservation of Energy:
The Law of Conservation of Energy states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can change its form.
The Law of the Conservation of Matter and Energy states that the quantity of matter and energy available in the universe is a fixed amount and never any more or less.
An atom is a small particle but we know it is not the tiniest. We possibly have not yet discovered the atoms talked about by Democritus, or Lucretius. But what we have discovered are protons, neutrons, and electrons, and further quarks, and photons. We have, I think I can say confidently, in physics and chemistry at least, thus reduced matter to nothing less than light itself, the only perceivable structure of the photon.
Now if the Laws of the Conservation of Matter and Energy are correct (and hold for a CLOSED system, like mathematics), then an atomic particle—and understand this to mean any atomic particle, or at least part of it— never decomposes. If this also is true, all matter is always in a constant state of change and motion, the same stuff constantly reanimated.
Consequently, anything that was once alive, that once contained carbon, will no matter its age still contain some amount of carbon, or at the very least, some subatomic particles that were once part of carbon. At the same time, we must assume that if that once-living thing was in or on the earth (and so far there have been no exceptions), it would have come into contact with something else which is also carboniferous, or which at one time was part of the essence — the atomic nucleus — of carbon. Merely being exposed to the air, for instance. The questions to ask here are, still, what are the real atoms Democritus sought? What is the basic building block of matter?
But again back to Zeno, we know from observation that the arrow hits the target, and hypothesized that this is because its energy became overcome by inertia and resistance, the latter found to a denser degree in the target. Were that arrow fast enough, say the speed of a bullet, it would go right through even the midpoints found there, but still eventually succumb to gravity.
Heisenberg developed what has become known as the Uncertainty Principle. He believed that the only way to measure a system on the subatomic level is to interfere with that system. In so doing, we can never be aware of any particle’s speed or position at the same time. To even observe the particle, for instance, we have to slam into or bounce another particle off of it, our very measuring alters it, like my blood pressure when I go to the doctor. On an atomic level this procedure greatly disturbs, in a very unnatural way, the motion of the particle we are trying to observe. I quote at length this source:
“Albert Einstein was not happy with the uncertainty principle, and he challenged Niels Bohr with a famous thought experiment: we fill a box with a radioactive material which randomly emits radiation. The box has a shutter, which is opened and immediately thereafter shut by a clock at a precise time, thereby allowing some radiation to escape. So the time is already known with precision. We still want to measure the conjugate variable energy precisely. Einstein proposed doing this by weighing the box before and after. The equivalence between mass and energy from special relativity, and again by special relativity, its measurement of time will be different from ours, leading to some unavoidable margin of error. In fact, a detailed analysis shows that the imprecision is correctly given by Heisenberg’s relation. It will allow you to determine precisely how much energy left the box. Bohr countered as follows: should energy leave, then the now lighter box will rise slightly on the scale. That changes the position of the clock…
…the widely but not universally accepted Copenhagen deterministic interpretation holds that […] on an elementary level, the physical universe does not exist in a form—but rather as a collection of probabilities, or potentials. For example, the pattern (probability distribution) produced by millions of photons passing through a diffraction slit can be calculated using quantum mechanics, but the exact path of each photon cannot be predicted by any known method…
It is this interpretation that Einstein was questioning when he said “I cannot believe that God would choose to play dice with the universe.” Bohr, who was one of the authors of the Copenhagen interpretation responded, “Einstein, don’t tell God what to do.”
Einstein was convinced that this interpretation was in error. His reasoning was that all previously known probability distributions arose from deterministic events. The distribution of a flipped coin or a rolled dice can be described with a probability distribution (50% heads, 50% tails). But this does not mean that their physical motions are unpredictable. Ordinary mechanics can be used to calculate exactly how each coin will land, if the forces acting on it are known. And the heads/tails distribution will still line up with the probability distribution (given random initial forces).
Einstein assumed that there are similar[ities] in quantum mechanics which underlie the observed probabilities.
Determinism versus chance, or determinism versus possibility, or probability? Einstein and Bohr apparently both believed in a Creator, their only difference being whether or not this Creator’s methods may be deduced. The question is whether 1) there is an intrinsic pattern to things which may be discovered, or whether 2) chance, or I would rather say, possibility, is also part of that pattern.
This debate is a classic but can be solved in the same manner as with how we try to account for Zeno’s midpoint-seeking arrow. First of all, neither Einstein nor Bohr stooped down low enough to recognize two basic facts regarding the above thought experiment. One is that upon opening, for any duration, the shutter will allow light INTO the box also. Second, both observers (Einstein and Bohr) exist within, at least, visually, because of this very same light. Both of these facts illustrate the problems we encounter when we enter the world of pure theory and speculation, a world constructed with concepts of our own invention. Theory never accounts for all variables and circumstances and so knowing this it must close its world, as they say, operate within a closed system. This, however, is an admission of inadequacy. It is like the aspiring pizza man who begins his project with pre-made dough and sauce from the pizzeria down the street. This as license, let me dare to settle this debate between Bohr and Einstein, using their own assumptions. God plays with loaded dice. Some things, by natural law, must be random, for the sake of variety and progress. God, so to speak, likes some element of unpredictability. Quite possibly, we can tell Einstein and Bohr, God sometimes likes to be surprised.
On the matter of atomic particles and half-lifes, once we interfere with the natural process we can no longer be certain about things like their speed or their size or position, the things we are trying to discover. As has been re-affirmed in testing with quarks and photons, and much more shocking when witnessed, the very act of observation seems to change the natural order. Some argue these flavorful particles have never been seen at all. We also appear to have evidence that these smallest bits can be in two places at once. Concerning the decomposition of subatomic particles, says the Uncertainty principle, we can be sure of their relative speed or their plotted position, but never both at once. Many further mitigating factors and contaminations, coming from both the environment and the actual act of experimentation, can and do influence even a stable particle’s deterioration rate.
Furthermore, there are also half-lives which are not constant, for what are called “unstable” particles. These rates of decay are recognized to vary depending on the particle and the conditions. Take water for example, as in how long it takes water, a molecule or conglomeration of elements (here in the ratio of 2 atoms of Hydrogen combined with one atom of Oxygen, or H2O), to evaporate. This duration it takes water to change into a gas also has a half-life, albeit one that cannot be reduced to a constant measurement. The only way to get this measurement at all is to try to control the conditions of evaporation. It’s like trying to discern the natural behavior of monkey while is is within the confines of a cage. You would, or should, assume your results to be skewed.
As it stands now, radiocarbon dating in particular has been called everything from a sham (many creationists), to “a radioactive revolution” (Renfrew, early 1970s), to something without which we would be “still floundering in a sea of imprecisions sometimes bred of inspired guesswork but more often than not imaginative speculation” (Desmond Clark, late 1970s possibly early 1980s). Indeed, wondering whether or not we have actually progressed beyond this sea of guesswork, imaginative speculation and imprecision — especially considering that the actual scientists using today’s methods cite what came before as being such mere speculation — is the point of our inquiry.
Three principal isotopes of Carbon occur naturally, as we have said before. C12 and C13 are both stable isotopes, but C14 is radioactive and unstable. By definition it is always in a transient state. The numbers in fact show quite clearly how comparatively rare C14 is. In our current environment and given our present atmosphere, assuming 100% be the volume of all Carbon in the universe, then almost 99% of Carbon found (the most consistent estimate is right near 98.9 percent) would be C12, and another (again, median estimate) 1.1% would be C13. This leaves (nothing, actually, but they say…) somewhere in the neighborhood of only 0.0000000001% unstable C14 actually usable for archaeological dating.
How C14 gets unstable, and so radioactive, is still another unsettled, if not unsettling, issue. Some attribute this instability to unnatural conditions, like Man’s manipulation of atoms in bomb detonations, nuclear energy production, and experimentation in physics and chemistry. Others allege primarily natural causes, like cosmic ray effects upon these atoms, which may not be an accurate assumption. One could ask, for instance, why certain carboniferous atoms become agitated, or made unstable, while others do not. The upshot is that, by all scientific estimates, for every one trillion Carbon isotopes found only one single C14 atom can be found.
Are unstable atoms a reliable source of origins and age, or just freaks of nature? We must decide. To begin we must go back to the numbers. Compare the table (white chart) above with the numbers we just mentioned, and not to mention that most sources use 5,730 as the “correct” number for the half-life. The table tabulates using the figure of one C14 atom for every 100,000,000, or one hundred million (10 to the 8th power). Sources here , here, and here say that it should be one C14 atom for every 1,000,000,000,000 or one for every one trillion (ten to the 12th power) C12 atoms, alone. That’s one heck of a discrepancy.
And what about the other isotopes? What about the 1-2 percent variance scientists recognize but treat as insignificant? Where are the REST of the numbers, as in the standard figures as found here, “98.89% C12, 1.11% C13” would give us 100% already, before adding the “0.0000000001% C14”, and still not accounting for the other stable carbon isotope C13.
Rather than rip our hair out let’s do more to understand the science. This elusive and rare C14, according to the science, when formed is rapidly oxidized to 14CO2, a type of carbon dioxide, whereby it enters the food chain because, well, Carbon is found in every living thing, and everywhere. Quickly it goes from mineral to gas in the atmosphere, something which has been measured many times, ironically by measuring radioactive carbon from nuclear blasts and bomb testings. Given these unnatural testing conditions, can we thereby make the claim that even this ratio, this small ratio of radioactive carbon to stable carbon, is accurate?
Again, Carbon14 breaks down, or decays, according to these experiments, and under questionable assumptions and conditions, eventually to Nitrogen14, a gas, and one extra electron. When Carbon14 content is used to date an object, that object need only contain Carbon. So were I to eat an ear of corn that grew in a plot containing one thousand year old Carbon, I would ingest and so contain that Carbon.
It is important to remember here that it is never the object itself that is dated, rather only the Carbon it contains. We have already mentioned that still adjustments have to be made, the formulas changed, because dating of more recent objects has showed that even for things only 3,000 years old, even accepting the premises of this method, still inaccuracies were found in dating things just as old as ancient Egypt.
Because of such discrepancies this method has of late been “cross-checked” with other, more conventional dating methods, such as written history, as for example the Egyptian chronology. On this more will come later, as the very dates being used for calibration could be way off, courtesy of one Manetho, whose dating of Egyptian history has come into dire question, but which is still accepted as authoritative.
Another dating method used is Varve Analysis, which has been named different things and has seen variations in method, but will be treated as one here. The method was pioneered by the Swedish geologist Gerard de Geer in 1878. “He observed what he believed to be regular patterns of glacial deposits in lakes. He tracked and dated the complete 3,600-year glacial retreat in southern Scandinavia. This sequence was then tied to river estuary varves (caused by rhythmic annual flooding) spanning about 7,500 years up to AD 700” (Farlex Encyclopedia and Dictionary). Here is the definition of what constitutes a varve:
“In geology, a pair of thin sedimentary beds, one coarse and one fine, representing a cycle of thaw followed by an interval of freezing, in lakes of glacial regions. Each couplet thus constitutes the sedimentary record of a year, and by counting varves in glacial lakes a record of absolute time elapsed can be determined. Summer and winter layers often are distinguished also by color, with lighter layers representing summer deposition, and darker layers being the result of dark clay settling from water while the lake is frozen” (ibid.).
The argument is that years can be counted based on the alternate freezing/thawing of layers of deposits. Similar to tree ring dating, another phenomenon also used for C14 calibration and an alternative dating method which will not be discussed further here, this method assumes a consistent, un-disrupted, un-aggravated, and un-stunted pattern of growth, or accumulation.
But this method has other limitations. We can only dig so far down, witness so many layers of development. Going deeper into the past, say before 1,000 AD, becomes extremely difficult for obvious reasons. As for the tree rings, trees older than 5,000 years are very rare, and how their age is determined utilizing these rings is not always explained in detail. See an example, in this case for what is claimed to be the world’s oldest living tree, in Sweden here.
Seemingly only geologists use this method anymore, and only for corroboration with other evidence. At best its use should be extremely limited, at worst, its conclusions are as questionable as the age of Methuselah.
I want to just briefly mention what I will call Stratometric dating. In short, these methods of dating want to claim that what is deepest is oldest, what is more to the surface, younger. So if we imagine a 12-tier dig, and assume definite layers, and artifact X is found in tier 3, while artifact Y is found in tier 7, it is presumed that artifact Y is older.
Prima facie I have no real problem with this assumption, however its conclusions must always be qualified for several reasons. First, it is not obvious nor clear that what is below is older. Earth climactic changes, earthquakes, erosion, and the like natural occurrences could alter a strata. Second, this dating is not absolute. So if we go as deep as we can and find our artifact in tier 12, the deepest possible, what would we have found? Nothing we know is older, how do we thereby determine its age?
So while this method, I think, is useful, I do not think it too important to our research quite yet. It may come in handy later, though…
The Human Genome Project is a government institution that only studies the human genome. It assumptions are many and its presumptions more. Its value per dollar spent is also debatable. I offer these prejudices up front because the prospect of the reliability of DNA, and our understanding of it, to date the age of Man, is as you will see a lot of conjecture. DNA use for dating, or determining the Origin of Man, is a perfect example of science being no different than myth. That many scientists use the disclaimer that these things are “just theories,” they nevertheless influence truth and society, and in this particular case they exhaust Federal funds in doing so.
Attempting to understand how this DNA dating works is enough to justify any rant. I downloaded a nifty package from the HGP website cited above to try and help me make sense of it all, you can download it yourself here.
Essentially, DNA can be used to trace a line of descent. Its harvest and analysis is not as accurate, even for things like personal identification, as proponents would have you believe. Its extraction itself, when it is “washed clean” for instance, is a mega-story riddled with speculative assumptions and questionable procedures.
Because I want to move on to other topics, and have come to the conclusion that we will eventually end up with the problem of determining the age of the Promordial Eve by other means already discussed, I’ll end this drudgery, but surely return to the topic later, if necessitated by that dissent I know and love.
To sum up, the whole half-life way of dating seems at first glance ill-suited to the task. Rather than the current set-up, why not just determine how long it takes these rare elemental anomalies to break down, using conventional years? The whole assumption of a “half-life” is an artist’s conception of the second order, as there is nothing beautiful, efficient, moving, or even of an advance to culture in it. If something stabilizes, or mutates, or changes, at a constant rate, science ought state that rate clearly so we can see how consistent, indeed constant it is. For Zeno, all you need is a yardstick, your reason, and your eyes. For the conception of the half-life, you need a whole system of justification, a specifically designed for the purpose microscopic yardstick, you need to put your reason on hold and accept the periods of halves, and you must go beyond what you see with your eyes.
And they say Zeno presents the paradox.