May 4, 2009 | 2
Carbon dating, a valuable tool for placing ancient archaeological finds in context, is now being applied to date more modern treasures: pricey bottles of scotch.
Researchers at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU) in England have applied their craft to sniff out counterfeit whiskeys, with the help of an unsavory ally: 20th-century nuclear tests. Those tests left their mark in the isotope record, significantly boosting levels of atmospheric carbon 14, the radioactive form of the element that researchers measure in carbon dating. Living things take up carbon from the environment, so barley grown during the nuclear era—and the whiskey distilled from it—bears an increased load of carbon 14. (Carbon dating of truly ancient objects uses the steady decay of carbon 14 in once-living tissues as a marker of age: the older something is, the less carbon 14 it has left.)
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