Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Radioactive Decay
Name: N/A
Status: N/A
Age: N/A
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: N/A

I've read that scientist's can tell how old the Earth or fossil's are by by carbon-dating or rate of radioactive decay. My question: is the rate of decay a constant no matter what the current atmospheric conditions are, in other words would the rate of decay be different on a different planet due to differences in gravity, atmosphere,temperature or whatever differences there are. Does the decay stop or slow down in the vacuum of space?

Let me begin by clarifying one point. The rate of decay of a radioactive element is not a constant. Instead, the decay process can be described by a first order (exponential) rate constant. This means that the rate of decay is proportional to the amount of material present.
rate = - k * [X]
where k is the rate constant and [X] is the concentration of the material, X. The negative sign indicates that the amount of material is decreasing with time.

As a result, if we know the amount at any time and the rate constant we can predict how much was present at any time in the past and how much will be present at any time in the future.
[X]' = [X] exp (- k * t)
where [X] is the initial amount present, [X]' is the amount that will be left after time, t.

Radiocarbon dating depends on the assumption that the relative abundance of the radioactive carbon isotope in the atmosphere has been constant throughout earth's history. This concentration is used to estimate the initial concentration in living material. Once something dies it no longer gets fresh radioactive carbon from its environment and the radioactive carbon it has continues to decay. We measure the amount of radioactive carbon, [X]', and then can use the equation above to calculate time, t, since the decay rate constant, k, is known.

Since radioactive carbon is constantly being produced in the upper atmosphere by interaction of non-radioactive gases with sunlight, and we have no reason to believe that the rate of production has changed over earth's history, the assumption that the relative abundance in the atmosphere has not changed is is probably good. Radioactive carbon dating has been checked against other methods, such as comparing the spacings in the growth rings of trees, where possible, and found to be correct.

Greg Bradburn

There are many methods of radioactive dating, of which carbon dating is only one. It turns out that carbon dating doesn't work very well on old things, because carbon-14's half life is too short. It can be used reliably only for artifacts younger than about 40,000 years.

There are several mechanisms of radioactive decay. The most common ones are alpha and beta decay, in which a nucleus gives off a helium nucleus and an electron, respectively. These mechanisms are completely insensitive to the environment: the rate of decay is constant and invariant.

There is one type of radioactive decay that is a little bit sensitive to the environment. This is electron capture, in which a nucleus absorbs an electron. This is the reverse of beta decay. The process will go a bit faster if the probability of the nucleus encountering an electron is higher, as can happen if the chemical environment changes or the pressure increases. The change in rate is small, however, and tremendous pressure changes are required to alter the rate measureably. Anyhow, I don't think that any nuclei used for radioactive dating decay by the electron capture process (I could be wrong - I'm not a geologist). At any rate, the most important and widely-used radioactive dating methods use nuclei that decay by the alpha or beta process.

Richard Barrans Jr., Ph.D.

The rate of decay (i.e., half-life) is characteristic of a radioactive element and "for all practical purposes" it is unaffected by temperature, pressure, atmospheric conditions, vacuum, space, etc. I hope that someone else would comment on this question for "non practical purposes", i.e., small influences that other forces in nature may have on radioactive decay.

In radioactive dating, one compares the ratio of carbon 14 to carbon 12. This ratio in the earth's atmosphere is known. When a living being dies and ceases to take in air, the ratio of carbon 14 to carbon 12 in its body begins to fall because of carbon 14 decay. While carbon 14 decay is independent of the environment it is in, if we are going to use it for dating, we need to have a reference. On the Earth, atmosphere is the reference because its ratio of C14/C12 is almost constant over the time scales for which carbon dating is appropriate. Since C14's half life is over 5000 years, we can probably estimate age in samples in the 1000-100,000 year-old range using this technique. Older specimen would probably have too few C14 left in them to give us accurate estimates. We could then use other elements or techniques.

Hope this helps you.

AK Dr. Ali Khounsary

Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory