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Carbon-14 is radioactive, with a half-life of about 5,700 years.
For more information on cosmic rays and half-life, as well as the process of radioactive decay, see How Nuclear Radiation Works.
But what's interesting is that a small fraction of carbon-14 forms, and then this carbon-14 can then also combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide.
And carbon-14 is constantly doing this decay thing. So over the course of 5,730 years, roughly half of them will have decayed. Well, if you know that all living things have a certain proportion of carbon-14 in their tissue, as kind of part of what makes them up, and then if you were to find some bone-- let's just say find some bone right here that you dig it up on some type of archaeology dig.
The carbon-14 atoms that cosmic rays create combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, which plants absorb naturally and incorporate into plant fibers by photosynthesis.
Animals and people eat plants and take in carbon-14 as well.
The prodigious mobilization of science that produced nuclear weapons was so far-reaching that it revolutionized even the study of ancient climates.
And then you can use that rate to actually determine how long ago that thing must've died. It would be a pretty reasonable estimate to say, well, that thing must be 5,730 years old.
By 1950, Willard Libby and his group at the University of Chicago had worked out ways to measure this proportion precisely.
Their exquisitely sensitive instrumentation was originally developed for studies in entirely different fields including nuclear physics, biomedicine, and detecting fallout from bomb tests.(1) Much of the initial interest in carbon-14 came from archeology, for the isotope could assign dates to Egyptian mummies and the like.
Climate science required the invention and mastery of many difficult techniques.
These had pitfalls, which could lead to controversy.
What I want to do in this video is kind of introduce you to the idea of, one, how carbon-14 comes about, and how it gets into all living things. They can also be alpha particles, which is the same thing as a helium nucleus. And they're going to come in, and they're going to bump into things in our atmosphere, and they're actually going to form neutrons. And we'll show a neutron with a lowercase n, and a 1 for its mass number. And what's interesting about this is this is constantly being formed in our atmosphere, not in huge quantities, but in reasonable quantities. Because as soon as you die and you get buried under the ground, there's no way for the carbon-14 to become part of your tissue anymore because you're not eating anything with new carbon-14.