Your Wine Is Radioactive

Liquor and wine is illegal in the U.S. unless it is radioactive.

No, really.

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In the US, alcohol for consumption must be made from “natural” materials such as grains, grapes, or fruit. It cannot be synthesized from petroleum (like almost every medicine you’ve ever put in your mouth, or for that matter, most food containers and plastic cutlery.

No, synthetic alcohol is chemically indistinguishable from the products of fermentation, but it’s just too cheap to be tolerated (at least until we run out of oil.) So to reduce consumption (a goal of the anti-alcohol lobby) and reduce competition (a goal of the liquor lobby), ATF inspectors turn to the same tools scientists use to show how stupid Ken Ham is: radiocarbon dating.

Nitrogen high in Earth’s atmosphere is constantly bombarded with solar and cosmic radiation, and some of it gets whacked into smaller atoms, including radioactive carbon 14. C-14 has a half life of 5,700 years, so over time, the entire atmosphere has reached an equilibrium point where C-14 is decaying into stable isotopes at the same rate it’s being created.

Natural alcohol gets its carbon from plants, and plants get their carbon from the air, so natural alcohol contains C-14 in the same ratio as it occurs in our atmosphere today.

Petroleum contains carbon that was taken from the air by plants and plankton that lived anywhere from 70 to 400 million years ago. After that much time, it contains almost no C-14 at all.

By using extremely sensitive instruments, scientists can measure the C-14 in a sample and estimate it’s age quite accurately up to about 50,000 years–any older than that and the remaining C-14 becomes indistinguishable from traces caused by naturally occurring radiation in the ground.

So while Mr. Ham doesn’t understand this, you cannot carbon date a dinosaur (we have other methods for that) but you can radiocarbon date a paleolithic campfire, a medieval roundhouse, or a nice Merlot. The calculated age, in the latter case, should be “not much.”

Of course, you could always synthesize alcohol next to a source of ionizing radiation, but such skullduggery is best left to the young earthers.