The Atom Calendar

Twenty-five years ago such words as neutron, isotope, radioactive, atomic energy and others related to these, were unknown to the vast majority of people. The situation has changed, however, and today these words are frequently encountered in our newspapers and magazines. The discovery of the nuclear bomb has made us atom-conscious. One interesting, although incidental, development which has resulted from this research is a method for dating ancient relics. Although the theoretical basis of this new time clock is difficult for the average individual to comprehend, the results of the method are intelligible to all who are really interested in the subject.

A Startling New Time Clock

The method was developed by Dr.Willard Libby and his associates on the faculty of the University of Chicago’s Institute for Nuclear Studies. In order to relate the history of this discovery it will be necessary to state a few scientific facts. The principle element in all living matter, whether vegetable or animal, is carbon. Most of us are acquainted with this substance in the form of soot or graphite, while others may be more familiar with the other form of this clement, namely, the diamond.

The various elements, such as copper, silver, gold, oxygen, nitrogen, and so forth, differ from each other in many respects. Weight is one of these. Most of the carbon atoms in the universe are twelve times as heavy as the hydrogen atom, which is the lightest of all atoms. In recent years scientists have made or discovered other kinds of carbon atoms which, although similar in chemical properties, vary in weight. Some are ten times as heavy as hydrogen, and others as much as fourteen times the weight of hydrogen. The latter type of carbon, commonly called carbon 14 is of chief concern to us here. It is being made in considerable quantity in connection with some of the atomic energy projects. The starting material is nitrogen, the gas which forms about eighty per cent of our atmosphere. It is probably the most important of the new synthetic atoms, and so much of it has been made that scientists have had ample opportunity to study its properties.

In view of the fact that cosmic rays produce the same type of particles in the atmosphere as those needed to produce carbon 14 in the laboratory, Dr. Libby wondered if some of the nitrogen in the atmosphere was not also being changed into carbon 14. Since plants absorb carbon in the form of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, carbon 14 should occur in nature if cosmic rays produce the same results as the laboratory experiments. And since animals eat plants, carbon 14 should then also be present in animal matter as well as vegetable. The amount of carbon 14 is, of course, small in comparison with the common carbon 12.



Libby analyzed several specimens of matter to prove his hypothesis and discovered that his guess was correct. His experiments proved that all living matter, whether vegetable or animal, contains some carbon 14. The value of this discovery lies in the fact that whereas carbon 12, the ordinary carbon in the universe, is stable, carbon 14 is unstable and its atoms slowly on emit electrons. Its concentration can be determined on the basis of the number of electrons emitted per minute per unit quantity. After a plant or animal dies, no more carbon 14, or any carbon for that matter, is absorbed. Since the rate of decomposition of carbon 14 has been accurately determined, Libby believed that he could tell how long a plant or animal had been dead on the basis of the carbon 14 which it still contained. In order to prove this theory, he asked the curators of several museums for samples of objects whose dates were accurately known on the basis of geology or anthropology or one of the other sciences concerned with the past. Although no claims are being made regarding the infallibility of the new time clock, the instrument has given almost unerring answers corresponding within a few years, one way or the other, with dates of known happenings during the written phase of human history.

Its Accurate Results

A few of the known interesting cases can be cited. One of these is a sample of wood taken from the floor of a palace of the Syro-Hittite period in the city of Tayinat in northwest Syria. The known age of this specimen is 2625±50 years. (The ± signifies that the error in determining this age on the basis of accompanying records is no more or less than 50 years in either direction of the accepted date. For example, the age under consideration is not more than 2675 nor less than 2575 years.) Libby found the age to be 2672 years. One of the oldest known museum specimens is a mummy which has a known age of 4576±75 years. By burning a single ounce of wood from this ancient Egyptian casket, the research investigators found the cypress residue dated hack to within a century or two of 4575 years. Some wood taken from the tomb of Sesostris III having a known age of 3750 years was given an age of 3621±180 years by the carbon 14 method.

Hundreds of samples of known age were similarly analyzed with results so good that the men working in this field felt that the method was valid for determining the ages of specimens whose dates were not accurately known. Dr. Libby has also pointed out that closer checks with the known dates would be obtained if the experiment in each case was allowed to run for a few weeks rather than a few days. So many specimens arc being sent to his laboratory that he is only determining the approximate dates in most cases. He hopes that other laboratories will be set up in other schools to assist in this work.

What About the Age of Man?

Although we do enter the realm of uncertainty at this stage of the story, it stands to reason that if we are able to date known objects with the accuracy indicated, we should be able to have some confidence in those dates which were previously unknown. We can again cite only a few of the more interesting examples. One of these is that the estimate for the time when the last great ice sheet covered the North American continent, as well as parts of Europe, should be cut almost in two. Most geologists have taught that this event took place some 20,000 to 25,000 years ago, but Dr. Libby’s atomic recorder shows that it should be only 11,000 to 12,000 years. The geologists who had always insisted that the latter dale was the correct one were naturally pleased with this check.

The instrument also shows that human beings seem to have come to the North American continent approximately 9,000 years ago. The first men appear to have moved into eastern Oregon about 2,000 years after the ice sheet receded. The evidence for this is found in three hundred pairs of artistically-made reed sandals which had been found previously in one of the caves in this state. Their age has been determined as being 9,000 years by the carbon 14 method. It is presumed that the first men crossed from Asia via the Bering Strait to reach our continent. It can also be shown that it required some 5,000 years for the earliest settlers of our continent to cross from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts. The arrival of the oldest man on the tip of South America also took place about 9,000 years ago. Analysis of charcoal from wood fires in a cave in France which contains some ancient paintings indicates their age to be between 14,000 and 15,000 years. The inference made from this is that men were liv ing there at that date.

Many samples of wood and animal remains have been determined to be older than 20,000 years. Coal and oil contain no detectable amounts of carbon 14, and the only conclusion which can be made from this at present is that they are at least 30,000 years old. The reason for such a conclusion is that the amount of carbon 14 remaining in objects older than 30,000 years is too small to be detected by present means. A new development in the process may make it possible to concentrate the amount of carbon 14 in a given specimen SO that readings going back 50,000 years can be made.

The Bible Confirmed

The Christian immediately senses that this method, if valid, raises several problems. If the history of man on this continent dates back to 9,000 years, when did the flood occur? \Vas the flood universal, or was it confined to the area where man was concentrated at the time of Noah? If that is so, then the flood must have occurred much longer ago than commonly supposed. Theologians are not at all agreed that the flood covered the entire earth since, as they point out, the purpose of the flood was to destroy all the human race with the exception of Noah and his family.

Ussher’s chronology is definitely not valid if we are ready to accept the values of the ages of various events on the basis of carbon 14. On the basis of the results produced by this method, we arc also tempted to believe that the days of creation were periods of time rather than days of twenty-four hours each. The oldest man found thus far is about 14,000 years old. Many animals have been found which arc older than this, and coal is definitely older than 30,000 years. The significant fact, and one which does not surprise the Christian, is that vegetable matter is older than animal, and animal matter in turn is older than anything found in connection with human remains. Coal, for example, is far older than our black shales which are of animal origin. The Bible has been telling us this right along.

Did Animals Die Before the Fall?

Another problem which immediately presents itself in connection with the above is that of death in the animal world before the fall. If radioactive carbon tells us the true story, we must conclude that animals did die before man fell into sin. The classic argument in favor of such a position is that man, and only man, was created an immortal being. Animals, being mortal, are created with a definite end in view, and they pass our of existence when they have fulfilled the purpose for which God created them. Had he created them immortal, they could not have lost their immortality any more than man could, even though man sinned. And if they were created mortal, this implies that their life would terminate at some time. We believe this to be whenever each specimen has fulfilled its life cycle in. God’s plan of things. The significant characteristic of the curse of death spoken to man was spiritual rather than physical in character. Although man looks forward to a bodily resurrection, he does so since it implies the higher, spiritual resurrection of the Christian. The Bible clearly teaches, on the other hand. that animals pass out of existence when their bodily functions cease. The evidence seems to point definitely in the direction that life has existed on this earth for a long period of time.

Facing the Issues

We feel the need at this point for some sound theological scholarship to assist us in placing these answers in their proper places. The Dutch theologians, whom we are fond of quoting, were willing to accept the implications of geology long before this new added evidence for the period idea of creation was discovered. Very little has been contributed by their American followers along this line. It is rather significant that the American Scientific Affiliation, a group of orthodox Christian scientists, has accepted the conclusions which the new atom clock has presented. Are we prepared to face the issues honestly and courageously?

One of the most recent tests made by use of the atom clock in Dr. Willard Libby’s laboratory at the University of Chicago corroborates the date of an Old Testament manuscript of Isaiah as more than 2,000 years old. The manuscript, sent to the laboratory for testing by the new “time clock,” was one of the Dead Sea Scrolls recently discovered by Arabs in a cave near the Dead Sea in Palestine. Hebrew scholars ha.d estimated the date of the manuscript as approximately 50 B.G.