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De Vries thought the variation might be explained by something connected with climate, such as episodes of turnover of ocean waters.(7) Another possible explanation was that, contrary to what everyone assumed, carbon-14 was not created in the atmosphere at a uniform rate.Some speculated that such irregularities might be caused by variations in the Earth's magnetic field.A stronger field would tend to shield the planet from particles from the Sun, diverting them before they could reach the atmosphere to create carbon-14.

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He was looking for the carbon that human industry had been emitting by burning fossil fuels, in which all the carbon-14 had long since decayed away.

Any contamination of a sample by outside carbon (even from the researcher's fingerprints) had to be fanatically excluded, of course, but that was only the beginning.

Delicate operations were needed to extract a microscopic sample and process it.

An example of the ingenious technical work and hard-fought debates underlying the main story is the use of radioactive carbon-14 to assign dates to the distant past.

For other examples, see the essays on Temperatures from Fossil Shells and Arakawa's Computation Device.

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