This question and related subjects have been at the heart of the Bible vs. Science controversy of the last several centuries. Taken literally, the Genesis creation account and genealogical records provided throughout the Bible indicate a relatively young world, not older than 6, years or so.
Modern Science, of course, mocks this idea of an adolescent Earth, offering a dramatically different perspective in the billions of years and beyond. A number of factors have helped to create the current disparity between Christianity and Science, but the most stirring contributors often come in the form of supposed scientific proofs — proof that modern Science is on the mark, proof that biblical genealogies are fabricated, evidence that Christians are miserably mistaken.
One such purported proof of the old-Earth theory is Carbon Dating. What is Carbon Dating? Carbon dating is a process used to determine the age of ancient organic materials by measuring the relative levels of different carbon isotopes in the substance. Most often the procedure is applied in dating archeological artifacts such as bone, cloth, wood, plant fibers, and especially relics created by human activity. This dating method is used for estimating the age of materials assumed to be about 60, years old or less this limitation is related to the radioactive half-life of carbon, see below.
How Does it Work? This dating process works by measuring the ratio of normal carbon atoms C12 to radioactive carbon C14 in the remnants of once-living plants and animals.
As the level of C14 is the critical variable, understanding the origin of this isotope is especially pertinent. Whenever and however one thinks the Earth came into existence, C12 has been here from the beginning and has always existed on Earth as the most fundamental atomic constituent of all life forms. C14, though, is different.
When emissions from the sun enter our atmosphere they often collide with various kinds of atoms. These reactions can result in secondary emissions of energetic neutrons which then collide into nitrogen atoms. The product of these collisions is a radioactive form of carbon, C This variation of carbon reacts and interacts just like C12 except that the nucleus of the atom is unstable, causing it to break down over time. In other words, C14 decays such that every 5, years exactly one half of the initial amount has transformed back into nitrogen.
This is called its half-life. Through this process of decay, the carbon atoms releases a measurable amount of radiation used to determine the remaining amount of C14 in a substance.
Because organisms have no way of discerning between these two isotopes, C12 and C14 from the atmosphere are indiscriminately cycled through their metabolic processes. As a result, the ratio of C12 to C14 in the atmosphere is the same in all living things.
At death, however, this ratio in organic material begins to change. When an organism dies the amount of C12 remains constant, but the level of the unstable C14 decrease as the C14 decays into nitrogen. The decrease in this ratio is the measurement used to calculate the age of organic materials. The less C14, the longer the organism has been dead.
This issue pertains to Christians because carbon-dating methods show many ancient relics to be much older than we might expect from a biblical perspective. To put it plainly, if carbon dating is right, the Bible is wrong. As is often the case, the differences are simply irreconcilable. Either the Bible means what is says and the world around 6, years old, or the science behind the system is right and the world is much more ancient than the Scriptures teach.
The science of carbon-dating makes several specific assumptions as the basis of the entire theory. If any one of these assumptions is shown to be faulty the whole system must become suspect. The theory is built on one critical assumption, that the C12 to C14 ratio has been in equilibrium for several thousand years 60, or more. In other words, the theory assumes that the C12 to C14 ratio existing today is the same as it was during the lifetime of the organisms being aged or dated.
Because carbon dating works by measuring changes in this ratio over time in dead organic material, the ratio must be assumed to have been the same or the whole system collapses. If the current C12 to C14 ratio in the atmosphere is C12 atoms to 1 C14 atom, this same After the organisms die, this ratio would change at a precise rate according to the half-life of C After 5, years the ratio would change to After another 5, years, So if we know the initial ratio and the ratio at the time of dating we could theoretically determine the age of the organism.
In the above example where the original ratio is The problem comes if the initial ratio is different than that assumed. For example, in this scenario if the original ratio was incorrectly assumed to be The whole system depends on the assumption that the C12 to C14 ratio is the same now as it was thousands of years ago.
This supposition in itself is the most crucial error in the theory. In order for this assumption to be true theorists make several other highly unreasonable assumptions. Not only must the level of C14 be stable and unchanged, everything that affects the creation and metabolizing of C14 levels must also be stable and unchanged. Every factor that contributes to this ratio must be proven to affect the system in the same way, with same intensity now just as it did thousands of years ago.
Starting to sound a little unreasonable? Consider how volatile some of these assumptions really are. Two assumptions inside of the carbon dating theory stand out as especially unlikely — cosmic radiation and nitrogen levels.
Cosmic Radiation Cosmic rays entering our atmosphere are a major variable in the C14 equation. The interactions initiated by these energetic rays are the first step in the processes that lead to C14 production. The heliosphere is a bubble of magnetism springing from the sun and inflated to colossal proportions by the solar wind.
Every planet from Mercury to Pluto and beyond is inside it. That means less shielding against cosmic rays. Even in the last decade changes in solar winds and variations in the heliosphere are dramatically changing one of the basic variables of the carbon dating system. Nitrogen Levels After cosmic rays penetrate the atmosphere a series of reactions transform normal nitrogen atoms into radioactive C14 atoms.
Logically, it follows that if the concentration of available nitrogen in the atmosphere is changing the amount of C14 being produced would also be changing. So what do our current nitrogen levels look like? Burning fossil fuels, using synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, and cultivation of legumes all fix nitrogen.
Through these activities, humans have more than doubled the amount of fixed nitrogen [that] is pumped into the biosphere every year. Several natural processes also affect how much nitrogen is available in the atmosphere for C14 formation, all of which are dependant on changing microbial activity.
One author explains it like this: What changes microbial activity? Everything from climate changes to the availability of resources. There are certainly more reasons to believe that nitrogen concentrations are changing, but these two examples should be enough to put down any notion that the levels are always the same. If the nitrogen levels are changing we can be sure C14 levels have followed the same tides.
What Do the Numbers Mean? Theoretically, the science behind carbon dating would work if the current C12 to C14 was comparable to that of thousands of years ago. Part of the problem could be with the cosmic radiation and nitrogen issues. Both have highly dynamic cycles, changing often, having no real pattern or predictable frequency.
If nitrogen levels and cosmic radiation were both much lower in the past which may well be the case , C14 production would also be much lower. Remember that C14 is produced only by reactions initiated through cosmic rays from the sun. Why does this matter? Suppose the Bible is right and Earth really is only 6, years old.
This is the inherent problem with carbon dating — it first assumes the Earth to be very old and then processes the figures to match the assumptions. Sometimes the question is not in the science, but in whether or not one believes in God and the Bible. Is such a subjective situation really science at all? Like often happens with modern Science, carbon dating leaves an open mind with more questions than answers. Perhaps the same thing he said to Job: Tell Me, if you have understanding.
In my secular work, I am a professor at Cox College in Springfield, MO, in the department of radiologic sciences and imaging.