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Since 1947, scientists have reckoned the ages of many old objects by measuring the amounts of radioactive carbon they contain.
New research shows, however, that some estimates based on carbon may have erred by thousands of years.
Carbon dating is unreliable for objects older than about 30,000 years, but uranium-thorium dating may be possible for objects up to half a million years old, Dr. The method is less suitable, however, for land animals and plants than for marine organisms, because uranium is plentiful in sea water but less so in most soils.
One such indicator is the uranium-thorium dating method used by the Lamont-Doherty group.Mixing and exchanges happen between the atmosphere and the biosphere until such time that equilibrium is established.Radiocarbon dating rests heavily on this assumption such that other sources of carbon 14 had, at first, not been considered nor accounted for.Uranium 234, a radioactive element present in the environment, slowly decays to form thorium 230.Using a mass spectrometer, an instrument that accelerates streams of atoms and uses magnets to sort them out according to mass and electric charge, the group has learned to measure the ratio of uranium to thorium very precisely.