A key point is that it is no longer necessary simply to accept one chemical determination of a rock’s age.
Age estimates can be cross-tested by using different isotope pairs.
And we talk about the word isotope in the chemistry playlist. But this number up here can change depending on the number of neutrons you have. And every now and then-- and let's just be clear-- this isn't like a typical reaction. So instead of seven protons we now have six protons. And a proton that's just flying around, you could call that hydrogen 1. If it doesn't gain an electron, it's just a hydrogen ion, a positive ion, either way, or a hydrogen nucleus. And so this carbon-14, it's constantly being formed. I've just explained a mechanism where some of our body, even though carbon-12 is the most common isotope, some of our body, while we're living, gets made up of this carbon-14 thing.
So carbon by definition has six protons, but the typical isotope, the most common isotope of carbon is carbon-12. And then that carbon dioxide gets absorbed into the rest of the atmosphere, into our oceans. When people talk about carbon fixation, they're really talking about using mainly light energy from the sun to take gaseous carbon and turn it into actual kind of organic tissue.
What I want to do in this video is kind of introduce you to the idea of, one, how carbon-14 comes about, and how it gets into all living things. They can also be alpha particles, which is the same thing as a helium nucleus. And they're going to come in, and they're going to bump into things in our atmosphere, and they're actually going to form neutrons. And we'll show a neutron with a lowercase n, and a 1 for its mass number. And what's interesting about this is this is constantly being formed in our atmosphere, not in huge quantities, but in reasonable quantities. Because as soon as you die and you get buried under the ground, there's no way for the carbon-14 to become part of your tissue anymore because you're not eating anything with new carbon-14.
And then either later in this video or in future videos we'll talk about how it's actually used to date things, how we use it actually figure out that that bone is 12,000 years old, or that person died 18,000 years ago, whatever it might be. So let me just draw the surface of the Earth like that. So then you have the Earth's atmosphere right over here. And 78%, the most abundant element in our atmosphere is nitrogen. And we don't write anything, because it has no protons down here. And what's interesting here is once you die, you're not going to get any new carbon-14. You can't just say all the carbon-14's on the left are going to decay and all the carbon-14's on the right aren't going to decay in that 5,730 years.
The methods are all based on radioactive decay: The first radiometric dates, generated about 1920, showed that the Earth was hundreds of millions, or billions, of years old.
For example, it has been known since the 1960s that the famous Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, the line marking the end of the dinosaurs, was 65 million years old.But what's interesting is as soon as you die and you're not ingesting anymore plants, or breathing from the atmosphere if you are a plant, or fixing from the atmosphere. Once a plant dies, it's no longer taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into new tissue. And this carbon-14 does this decay at a specific rate. And you say, hey, that bone has one half the carbon-14 of all the living things that you see right now.And then you can use that rate to actually determine how long ago that thing must've died. It would be a pretty reasonable estimate to say, well, that thing must be 5,730 years old.Repeated recalibrations and retests, using ever more sophisticated techniques and equipment, cannot shift that date. With modern, extremely precise, methods, error bars are often only 1% or so.The fossil record is fundamental to an understanding of evolution.