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Picture a swimmer competing in a 1,500 metre race and an observer with an accurate wristwatch.

We note that at the instant the swimmer touches the end of the pool our wristwatch reads and 53 seconds.

The first is that atoms have always decayed at the same rate.

And this isn’t really an assumption as the decay rates have been tested in the laboratory for a hundred years or so, we have an example of a natural nuclear reactor where we can measure the various products and determine the decay rates (and the fine structure constant), and we can observe the past by looking deep into the past of the universe. The sigh isn’t for the effort of writing, it’s for the effort of finding all the references.

And radioactive dating is so shrouded with mystery that many don’t even try to understand how the method works; they just believe it must be right.

But the basic concept of radioactive dating, sometimes called radiometric dating, is not difficult, especially since all of us regularly calculate how much time has passed: for example, since our birth, or since we started on a walk.

An isotope is a particular type of atom of a chemical element, which differs from other isotopes of that element.

Many people assume that the dates scientists quote of millions of years are as reliable as our knowledge of the structure of the atom or nuclear power.That is why carbon-14 is a radioactive isotope-it contains a combination of protons and neutrons in its nucleus that is not stable enough to hold together indefinitely.Eventually, it will undergo a spontaneous nuclear reaction and turn into a stable daughter product – a different isotope, which is not radioactive.Indeed, by doing almost 20 seconds of research on google (type in “variations in C14”, click on Google Scholar) the second link is this article from 1954: Carbon 13 in plants and the relationships between carbon 13 and carbon 14 variations in nature So, this issue has been known about for a long time. Then we compare the two and adjust the radiocarbon date to the known date. That’s less than 1% if you’re interested in that sort of thing. But this is already almost a thousand words and I’ve only done ONE! Long story short, scientists have always known that variations in C-14 concentration happen.Do you honestly think that no one has done anything about it? By making thousands (if not millions) of these adjustments we get a very good idea of how old a piece of unknown material can be. The 2009 calibration set extends the ‘well calibrated range’ to 50,000 years using the varves in a Japanese lake. This is unlike the creationists which think it happened, but can’t be bothered to check.

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