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Therefore, he used modern C14 levels to approximate the ancient. Estimated years since a specimen died based on how much C14 was believed to have decayed since the death of the specimen.
The curved line represents the loss of C14 over time due to radioactive decay.
Radioactive decay causes once-living specimens to lose half of their C14 atoms in about each 5,730-year half-life.
Thus, if the level today is half of what it was estimated to be when the thing died, it is said to be 5,730 years old.
Alasdair Beal noted a frailty in estimating the half-life: “It is worth remembering that the half-life of C14 used in the calculations (5,730 years or thereabouts) has been calculated from measurements taken over only a few decades. it would take only slight contamination to affect the result.” Although there is still some uncertainty regarding the precise decay rate of C14, perhaps a more important question is whether the decay rate is consistent over time.
Thus, neutrinos and other sub-atomic particles from nearby supernovas may have had an important effect on radioactive decay.
The decay rate may not be certain, or everlastingly set, however, it appears to be consistent enough to be useful in the formula for C14 date estimates during historical times.
When something dies, it no longer assimilates C14, at least not by the means described above. To test the assumption, the rate that C14 forms in Earth’s atmosphere was estimated (based on measurements from various locations around the globe). The testing indicated that C14 is forming faster than it is decaying.
If an artifact is preserved from physical decay and leaching of chemicals, radioactivity may be the sole means whereby it gradually loses its C14. A simple analogy may be helpful: Suppose water is steadily dripping into a large tub.