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Art and Science Applications

Applications of nuclear science in energy and medicine are well known, but nuclear science and technology are important in art and social sciences , too.

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 a matter’s age.  C-14 dating is useful for dating items up to about 50,000 – 60,000 years old, such as Neanderthals and ice age animals.

Other radioactive techniques using beryllium, aluminum, potassium, argon, and uranium have been developed to measure specimens older than 50,000 years.


Carbon Dating

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.

Creating Beauty

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.

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.

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