Carbon Dating

Carbon Dating: What’s The Difference Between Carbon-14 Dating And Radio-Active Dating Methods?

Some people can get confused about Carbon dating. In fact, most people think it is used to show the age of a fossil or a rock.

But carbon-dating isn’t used to date rocks or fossils at all. It does not tell us the earth is millions of years old.

You Just Can't Date The Rock!

This is because rocks and fossils are made of non-living materials. Non-living materials are called “inorganic matter”. But living things are based on carbon and are called “organic matter.” Organic matter like wood or bone may still have traces of carbon inside. Only organic matter can be used for Carbon dating.

Now - Scientists do have some other methods they use to try and date rocks. These other methods are called “radio-active” or “radio-metric” dating. (Click To Read Article On Radioactive Dating).

You may be wondering why it’s important to point out the difference. It’s important because Carbon dating is really only useful for organic matter that is less than 3 to 5,000 years old. Most people don’t know that – but now you do!

Why is Carbon dating only useful for things less than 3 to 5,000 years old?

I’m glad you asked! In order to answer, we’ve got to know how Carbon dating is supposed to work.

Carbon Dating: What Is A Carbon Atom Anyway?

Carbon is an atom – and you probably knew that! But let’s review a little about atoms so we can get the concept of Carbon dating.

Atoms are made up of tiny pieces of energy called protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons have a positive electrical charge. Electrons have a negative charge and neutrons don’t have any charge.

Now – Carbon is usually made up of 6 protons, 6 neutrons and 6 electrons. If you add up the protons and neutrons you get 12. This is why scientists call it Carbon-12. (Scientists usually shorten this to C-12 or (12)C).

Okay – we’re almost there…

High in the upper atmosphere another atom called Nitrogen-14 can sometimes get zapped by the sun’s radiation. When this happens it can become Carbon-14. This is a kind of carbon that has 8 neutrons instead of just 6.

So, add up the 8 neutrons and 6 protons and you get…14. This is where we get most of our Carbon-14.

C-14 is sort of a mutant Carbon. This makes it really unstable.

In fact, Carbon-14 is literally bleeding energy all the time. This bleeding energy is called “radio-active decay.” Once enough energy bleeds away, Carbon-14 will change back into Nitrogen-14.

Scientists have taken a lot of measurements on how fast Carbon-14 is bleeding energy. They figure that it takes 5,730 years for half of a sample of Carbon-14 to change back into Nitrogen-14. This is called the “half-life” of Carbon-14.

So why is that important?

Carbon Dating: How It’s Supposed To Work.

Well – living things suck in Carbon-12 and Carbon-14 every day. So long as something is alive, it is taking in Carbon-12 and Carbon-14. These atoms get stuck into bones and skin and so on.

But when something dies, it doesn’t take in any Carbon-12 or Carbon-14 anymore. Picture it like carrying a sack of marbles. Every day you are alive you collect marbles. Some are C-12 marbles and some are C-14 marbles. But when you’re dead – your marble collecting days are over.

So – when your body stops collecting Carbon-12 and Carbon-14, the Carbon-14 should start changing back into Nitrogen-14. In other words, the Carbon-14 marbles in your bag are going to start rolling away. Over time, since you’re dead, your bag of marbles is going to get lighter.

You Pretty Much Just Lose Your Marbles Completely...

So – figure out how much Carbon-14 is missing and you can figure out how LONG the Carbon-14 has been decaying.

But how does that work?

Carbon Dating: How It’s Supposed To Be All Added Up.

Okay, so scientists have measured how much Carbon-14 is in today’s atmosphere. They have compared this amount with how much Carbon-12 is around. This comparison is called a ratio.

What does a scientists do when he wants to “date” a sample from something that is dead.

  • First, he measures the ratio of Carbon-12 to Carbon-14 he finds in the sample.
  • Next, he compares this ratio to the ratio we find in nature today.
  • Lastly, he pulls out his trusty little calculator and figures out how much Carbon-14 is missing in the dead sample.

Then it’s time to add. Since it is supposed to take 5,730 years for half of a sample of Carbon-14 to decay, he just has to see how much is missing and add up the years. (1)

Seems simple enough…But…

Carbon Dating: What’s The Problem?

Scientists figure it is supposed to take 5,730 years for half a sample of Carbon-14 to decay.

But no one’s been around measuring Carbon samples for 5,730 years to find out for sure. Now - all the measurements we take do seem pretty stable and it’s probably a good bet – but we just can’t know for sure.

  • What if Carbon-14 decayed faster in the past? We can’t know for sure.
  • Besides that – there is no way to know if a sample was not messed with in some way in the past. What if it was contaminated?
  • And Carbon-14 is made by the rays of the sun zapping Nitrogen-14. What if the sun’s radiation was greater or lower in the past? We can’t know that for sure either.

Or worse – what if the levels of Carbon-14 we find today have not been stable over time? (2)

Wait a minute – Actually, that IS what we find today….

Carbon Dating: Carbon In The Air Isn’t Stable Just Yet!

The amount of Carbon-14 and Carbon-12 we find today should be equal. In fact, it has to be equal for Carbon dating to really work.


Because we have to compare the ratio we find in a dead sample with the ratio in nature today. Remember the marbles? Everybody should be collecting the SAME amount of C-12 marbles and C-14 marbles.


Because you get your marbles from the air! In the air, C-14 marbles should be getting made just as fast as they decay. These rates should be equal.

But they are not equal. (3)

Why does that matter?

Well – if a scientist finds you dead and wants to know how long you have been dead, what does he do? He counts how many Carbon-14 marbles you have in your sack. He compares this number with how many Carbon-14 marbles are in the air today.

But this number is changing! It’s not staying the same.

This means that any date from Carbon dating over 3,000 years is inaccurate. The older the Carbon date, the more inaccurate it gets too. (4)

That’s a big problem. In fact, about ½ as much Carbon-14 is being made every day than is decaying. (5)

So – what this is all means is that Carbon dating is only fairly useful for things no older than about 3,000 years. About the best it can do for us is tell us if one dead thing is older than another.

The truth is – Carbon dating does not prove the earth is millions of years old.

How To Remember This Stuff

Carbon dating past 3,000 years can’t be trusted,The RATE of decay may have seriously adjusted.

R = Rates of C-14 decay may have been different in the past.

A = Amounts of C-14 in nature today are not stable. Comparing amounts to today’s rates will not give an accurate date.

T = Today’s samples may have been contaminated in the past.

E = Explosions of solar radiation could have affected C-14 amounts in nature.

My name is Patrick Marks, and I am the author of and the book "Someone's Making A Monkey Out Of You."

I live in Surprise, Arizona, along with my wife and 5 kids. My oldest two sons currently serve in the United States Navy.

I am the Pastor of FourteenSix Christian Church. In my off time I write everything from non-fiction books to screenplays, play guitar, and dabble in drawing and painting.

(1) Morris, J. 1998. Doesn't Carbon Dating Prove The Earth Is Old? Acts & Facts. 27 (6). Net. “Carbon normally occurs as Carbon-12, but radioactive Carbon-14 may sometimes be formed in the outer atmosphere as Nitrogen-14 undergoes cosmic ray bombardment. The resulting C-14 is unstable and decays back to N-14 with a measured half-life of approximately 5,730 years. Thus the ratio of stable C-12 to unstable C-14, which is known in today's open environment, changes over time in an isolated specimen…Consider the dating of a piece of wood. As long as the tree lives, it absorbs carbon from the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, both C-12 and C-14. Once the tree dies, it ceases to take in new carbon, and any C-14 present begins to decay. The changing ratio of C-12 to C-14 indicates the length of time since the tree stopped absorbing carbon, i.e., the time of its death.”

(2) Morris, Henry M. Whitcomb, John C. The Genesis Flood, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing (1961, 28th printing 1985), pp. 371-372. Print. “Kulp lists the assumptions as follows: ‘There are two basic assumptions in the carbon 14 method. One is that the carbon 14 concentration in the carbon dioxide cycle is constant. The other is that the cosmic ray flux has been essentially constant – at least on a scale of centuries.’ To which we might add the assumption of the constancy of the rate of decay of the carbon 14 atoms, the assumption that dead organic matter is not later altered with respect to its carbon content by any biologic or other activity, the assumption that the carbon dioxide content of the ocean and atmosphere has been constant with time, the assumption that the huge reservoir of oceanic carbon has not changed in size during the period of applicability of the method, and the assumption that the rate of formation and the rate of decay of radiocarbon atoms have been in equilibrium throughout the period of applicability. Every one of these assumptions is highly questionable in the context of the events of Creation and the Deluge.”

(3) Fairhall, A.W., and J.A. Young, “Radiocarbon in the Environment,” Advances in Chemistry, vol. 93 (1970), pp. 401 – 418. Print. “We note in passing that the total natural 14C inventory of 2.16 x 10(30)atoms…corresponds to a 14C decay rate of 1.63 disintegrations/sec./cm.2 of the earth, considerably below the estimated production rate of 14C atoms averaged over the last 10 solar cycles (111 years) of 2.5 +-0.5 atoms/sec./cm.2 From a geophysical point of view, it would be very surprising if the decay rate and the production rate of 14C were out of balance as seriously as the difference between the above two numbers would suggest. It is difficult to reconcile this discrepancy by errors in computing the 14C inventory since the bulk of the 14C is in the sea, where the 14C concentration relative to the terrestrial biosphere is known fairly well…The source of the discrepancy is therefore unknown unless the present-day production rate is indeed significantly higher than the average production rate over the last 8000 years, the mean life of 14C.”

(4) Morris, Henry M. Morris, John. The Modern Creation Trilogy, vol. 2. (1996),p.321. Print. “It has been reasonably confirmed by historical dates back to about 3,000 years however, the invalidity of the steady-state assumption is bound to result in radiocarbon dates that are too high, with the error increasing as the age increases! The steady-state assumption actually has been known to be wrong ever since the method was first suggested back in the 1940’s by Willard Libby.”

(5) Ibid. P. 322. Print. “That is, about 50 percent more is being produced than is decaying, and this can mean only that the earth’s atmosphere (where the production takes place) is far younger than 50,000 years!”