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Art and Science Applications
By visiting the pages on this site, you probably are aware by now that there is hardly anything that does not benefit from radiation. This is even true for the arts and sciences.
Understanding our Past
Carbon-14 dating has allowed us to accurately date historical artifacts. All living beings (plant or animal) have the same ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12. When plants or animals die, the ratio changes and this change can be used to determine the matters age. This technique is used to date specimens from 50 to 60,000 years C-14 dating is useful for dating items up to about 50,000 – 60,000 years ago (useful for dating organisms like Neanderthals and ice age animals).
- The age of Egyptian mummies is determined to be over 2,000 years old using carbon dating
- Charcoal from the “Marmes Man” site in southeastern Washington allowed us to determine that the oldest known inhabited sites in North America are just over 10,000 years old.
Other radioactive techniques using beryllium, aluminum, potassium, argon, and uranium have been developed to measure specimens older than 50,000 years.
- The age of Lucy, the most famous Australopithecus afarensis, was determined to be 3.2 million-year-old using argon-argon dating.
- The age of Earth was determined to be 4.6 million years old using uranium-lead dating.
- The Potassium-argon method was used by the Mars Curiosity rover to date rocks on the surface of Mars at 60-100 million years old.
DID YOU KNOW?
If we look at the carbon-14 atom, we find that C-14 does not last forever. There is a time when it loses its extra neutrons and becomes carbon-12. The loss of those neutrons is called radioactive decay. That decay happens regularly. For carbon, the decay happens in a few thousand years (5,730 years). Some elements take longer, and others have a decay that happens over a period of minutes. Archaeologists are able to use their knowledge of radioactive decay when they need to know the date of an object they dug up. C-14 locked in an object from several thousand years ago will decay at a certain rate. With this knowledge, archaeologists can measure how many thousands of years old an object is.
Very few people know that radiation plays a significant role in transforming gems into desirable colors. Gemstones can be enhanced from their natural condition by irradiation.
- Diamonds change from off-white to green or yellow
- Pearls change to blue and gray (“black” pearls)
- Topaz changes from colorless to blue, intensifies yellow and orange, or creates green
Preserving Art and History
Radiation is used to restore and preserve artifacts that have been exposed to air. Irradiation kills microorganisms that can cause decay.
By using an x-ray fluorescence technique we can determine the chemical makeup of paint in rare paintings. This allows us to authenticate the age and place of origin of the painting and reveal a forgery.