Nyerup's words illustrate poignantly the critical power and importance of dating; to order time.Radiocarbon dating has been one of the most significant discoveries in 20th century science. So what we do is we come up with terms that help us get our head around this. So I wrote a decay reaction right here, where you have carbon-14. So now you have, after one half-life-- So let's ignore this. I don't know which half, but half of them will turn into it. And then let's say we go into a time machine and we look back at our sample, and let's say we only have 10 grams of our sample left. Now you could say, OK, what's the probability of any given molecule reacting in one second? But we're used to dealing with things on the macro level, on dealing with, you know, huge amounts of atoms. So I have a description, and we're going to hopefully get an intuition of what half-life means. And how does this half know that it must stay as carbon? So if you go back after a half-life, half of the atoms will now be nitrogen. Then all of a sudden you can use the law of large numbers and say, OK, on average, if each of those atoms must have had a 50% chance, and if I have gazillions of them, half of them will have turned into nitrogen. How much time, you know, x is decaying the whole time, how much time has passed? SAL: In the last video we saw all sorts of different types of isotopes of atoms experiencing radioactive decay and turning into other atoms or releasing different types of particles. But the question is, when does an atom or nucleus decide to decay? So it could either be beta decay, which would release electrons from the neutrons and turn them into protons. And normally when we have any small amount of any element, we really have huge amounts of atoms of that element. That's 6.02 times 10 to the 23rd carbon-12 atoms. This is more than we can, than my head can really grasp around how large of a number this is. "Everything which has come down to us from heathendom is wrapped in a thick fog; it belongs to a space of time we cannot measure.We know that it is older than Christendom, but whether by a couple of years or a couple of centuries, or even by more than a millenium, we can do no more than guess." [Rasmus Nyerup, (Danish antiquarian), 1802 (in Trigger, 19)].
So you might get a question like, I start with, oh I don't know, let's say I start with 80 grams of something with, let's just call it x, and it has a half-life of two years. And maybe not carbon-12, maybe we're talking about carbon-14 or something. And then nothing happens for a long time, a long time, and all of a sudden two more guys decay. And the atomic number defines the carbon, because it has six protons. If they say that it's half-life is 5,740 years, that means that if on day one we start off with 10 grams of pure carbon-14, after 5,740 years, half of this will have turned into nitrogen-14, by beta decay. What happens over that 5,740 years is that, probabilistically, some of these guys just start turning into nitrogen randomly, at random points. So if we go to another half-life, if we go another half-life from there, I had five grams of carbon-14. So now we have seven and a half grams of nitrogen-14. This exact atom, you just know that it had a 50% chance of turning into a nitrogen. So with that said, let's go back to the question of how do we know if one of these guys are going to decay in some way. That, you know, maybe this guy will decay this second. Remember, isotopes, if there's carbon, can come in 12, with an atomic mass number of 12, or with 14, or I mean, there's different isotopes of different elements. So the carbon-14 version, or this isotope of carbon, let's say we start with 10 grams. Well we said that during a half-life, 5,740 years in the case of carbon-14-- all different elements have a different half-life, if they're radioactive-- over 5,740 years there's a 50%-- and if I just look at any one atom-- there's a 50% chance it'll decay. Now after another half-life-- you can ignore all my little, actually let me erase some of this up here. So we'll have even more conversion into nitrogen-14. So now we're only left with 2.5 grams of c-14. Well we have another two and a half went to nitrogen. So after one half-life, if you're just looking at one atom after 5,740 years, you don't know whether this turned into a nitrogen or not. Atoms of the same element that have different numbers of neutrons are called isotopes. Most carbon on Earth exists as the very stable isotope carbon-12, with a very small amount as carbon-13.Here’s an example using the simplest atom, hydrogen. Carbon-14 is an unstable isotope of carbon that will eventually decay at a known rate to become carbon-12.
I mean, maybe if we really got in detail on the configurations of the nucleus, maybe we could get a little bit better in terms of our probabilities, but we don't know what's going on inside of the nucleus, so all we can do is ascribe some probabilities to something reacting. And it does that by releasing an electron, which is also call a beta particle. And I've actually seen this drawn this way in some chemistry classes or physics classes, and my immediate question is how does this half know that it must turn into nitrogen? So that after 5,740 years, the half-life of carbon, a 50% chance that any of the guys that are carbon will turn to nitrogen. But we'll always have an infinitesimal amount of carbon. Let's say I'm just staring at one carbon atom. You know, I've got its nucleus, with its c-14. I mean, if you start approaching, you know, Avogadro's number or anything larger-- I erased that. After two years, how much are we going to have left? And then after two more years, I'll only have half of that left again.