Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Physicists explain the long, useful lifetime of carbon-14

May 28, 2011
Iowa State University
Physicists have discovered the reasons behind the unexpectedly slow decay of carbon-14. That slow decay makes it possible for scientists to use carbon dating techniques to accurately date the relics of history. Understanding the decay of carbon-14 could also help researchers unravel other mysteries of matter.

Iowa State University physicists, left to right, Pieter Maris and James Vary have used supercomputing power to solve the puzzle of the long, slow decay of carbon-14. That long half-life makes carbon-14 a useful tool to determine the ages of skeletons and other artifacts.
Credit: Photo by Bob Elbert.

The long, slow decay of carbon-14 allows archaeologists to accurately date the relics of history back to 60,000 years.

Related Articles

And while the carbon dating technique is well known and understood (the ratio of carbon-14 to other carbon isotopes is measured to determine the age of objects containing the remnants of any living thing), the reason for carbon-14's slow decay has not been understood. Why, exactly, does carbon-14 have a half-life of nearly 6,000 years while other light atomic nuclei have half-lives of minutes or seconds? (Half-life is the time it takes for the nuclei in a sample to decay to half the original amount.)

"This has been a very significant puzzle to nuclear physicists for several decades," said James Vary, an Iowa State University professor of physics and astronomy. "And the underlying reason turned out to be a fairly exotic one."

The reason involves the strong three-nucleon forces (a nucleon is either a neutron or a proton) within each carbon-14 nucleus. It's all about the simultaneous interactions among any three nucleons and the resulting influence on the decay of carbon-14. And it's no easy task to simulate those interactions.

In this case, it took about 30 million processor-hours on the Jaguar supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Jaguar has a peak performance of 2.3 quadrillion calculations per second, a speed that topped the list of the world's top 500 supercomputers when the carbon-14 simulations were run.

The research project's findings were recently published online by the journal Physical Review Letters.

Vary and Pieter Maris, an Iowa State research staff scientist in physics and astronomy, are the lead authors of the paper. Collaborating on the paper are Petr Navratil of TRIUMF (Canada's National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics in Vancouver) and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California; Erich Ormand of Lawrence Livermore National Lab; plus Hai Ah Nam and David Dean of Oak Ridge National Lab. The research was supported by contracts and grants from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.

Vary, in explaining the findings, likes to remind people that two subatomic particles with different charges will attract each other. Particles with the same charges repel each other. Well, what happens when there are three particles interacting that's different from the simple addition of their interactions as pairs?

The strong three-nucleon interactions are complicated, but it turns out a lot happens to extend the decay of carbon 14 atoms.

"The whole story doesn't come together until you include the three-particle forces," said Vary. "The elusive three-nucleon forces contribute in a major way to this fact of life that carbon-14 lives so long."

Maris said the three-particle forces work together to cancel the effects of the pairwise forces governing the decay of carbon-14. As a result, the carbon-14 half-life is extended by many orders of magnitude. And that's why carbon-14 is a very useful tool for determining the age of objects.

To get that answer, Maris said researchers needed a billion-by-billion matrix and a computer capable of handling its 30 trillion non-zero elements. They also needed to develop a computer code capable of simulating the entire carbon-14 nucleus, including the roles of the three-nucleon forces. Furthermore, they needed to perform the corresponding simulations for nitrogen-14, the daughter nucleus of the carbon-14 decay. And, they needed to figure out how the computer code could be scaled up for use on the Jaguar petascale supercomputer.

"It was six months of work pressed into three months of time," Maris said.

But it was enough for the nuclear physicists to explain the long half-life of carbon-14. And now they say there are more puzzles to solve:

"Everybody now knows about these three-nucleon forces," Vary said. "But what about four-nucleon forces? This does open the door for more study."

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Iowa State University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. P. Maris, J. Vary, P. Navrαtil, W. Ormand, H. Nam, D. Dean. Origin of the Anomalous Long Lifetime of ^{14}C. Physical Review Letters, 2011; 106 (20) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.106.202502

Cite This Page:

Iowa State University. "Physicists explain the long, useful lifetime of carbon-14." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 May 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110526122913.htm>.
Iowa State University. (2011, May 28). Physicists explain the long, useful lifetime of carbon-14. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 31, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110526122913.htm
Iowa State University. "Physicists explain the long, useful lifetime of carbon-14." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110526122913.htm (accessed March 31, 2015).

Share This

More From ScienceDaily

More Matter & Energy News

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Dutch Architects Show Off 3D House-Building Prowess

Dutch Architects Show Off 3D House-Building Prowess

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Mar. 31, 2015) — Dutch architects are constructing a 3D-printed canal-side home, which they hope will spark an environmental revolution in the house-building industry. Jim Drury reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Solar Plane Stops in China

Solar Plane Stops in China

Reuters - News Video Online (Mar. 31, 2015) — Solar Impulse 2 stops over in China&apos;s Chonqing, completing the fifth leg in its bid to become the first solar powered plane to travel around the globe. Rough Cut (no reporter narration). Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Bionic Ants Could Be Tomorrow's Factory Workers

Bionic Ants Could Be Tomorrow's Factory Workers

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Mar. 30, 2015) — Industrious 3D printed bionic ants working together could toil in the factories of the future, says German technology company Festo. The robotic insects cooperate and coordinate their actions and movements to achieve a common aim. Amy Pollock reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
You Won't Be Driving Tesla's Mystery Product

You Won't Be Driving Tesla's Mystery Product

Newsy (Mar. 30, 2015) — Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a new product line will debut April 30, but it&apos;s not a car. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.


Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Space & Time

Matter & Energy

Computers & Math

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News


Free Subscriptions

Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile

Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?

Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins