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Most carbon on Earth exists as the very stable isotope carbon-12, with a very small amount as carbon-13.Carbon-14 is an unstable isotope of carbon that will eventually decay at a known rate to become carbon-12.is a technique used by scientists to learn the ages of biological specimens – for example, wooden archaeological artifacts or ancient human remains – from the distant past.It can be used on objects as old as about 62,000 years.Image via The Cosmic Story of Carbon-14 by Ethan Siegel, via Simon Swordy (U.

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Atoms of the same element that have different numbers of neutrons are called isotopes.But when gas exchange is stopped, be it in a particular part of the body like in deposits on bones and teeth, or when the entire organism dies, the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 begins to decrease.Organisms at the base of the food chain that photosynthesize – for example, plants and algae – use the carbon in Earth’s atmosphere.They have the same ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 as the atmosphere, and this same ratio is then carried up the food chain all the way to apex predators, like sharks.

Cosmic rays – high energy particles from beyond the solar system – bombard Earth’s upper atmosphere continually, in the process creating the unstable carbon-14. Because it’s unstable, carbon-14 will eventually decay back to carbon-12 isotopes.

Because the cosmic ray bombardment is fairly constant, there’s a near-constant level of carbon-14 to carbon-12 ratio in Earth’s atmosphere.

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