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Radiocarbon dating uses isotopes of the element carbon. This isotope lets scientists learn the ages of once-living specimens from long ago.
Image via The Cosmic Story of Carbon-14 by Ethan Siegel, via Simon Swordy (U.
Chicago), via NASA of those two isotopes in a sample.
Most carbon on Earth exists as the very stable isotope carbon-12, with a very small amount as carbon-13.
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.
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.
Atoms of the same element that have different numbers of neutrons are called isotopes.
Here’s an example using the simplest atom, hydrogen. Cosmic rays bombard Earth’s atmosphere, creating the unstable isotope carbon-14.