The most common of the radioactive dating techniques currently in use involves the isotope 14 of carbon, the radiocarbon. This radioactive isotope of carbon is present in the atmosphere in trace amounts, and in chemical processes is indistinguishable from normal carbon As a result, animal and plant life regularly assimilate carbon 14 atom together with the usual carbon The carbon 14 present in the atmosphere is constantly renewed. The cosmic rays originating from the Sun collide with nuclei in the upper atmosphere and are capable of breaking off individual neutrons. These neutrons, once freed, can interact with atoms of nitrogen 14 in air, causing the expulsion of a proton and the formation of carbon
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When we speak of the element Carbon, we most often refer to the most naturally abundant stable isotope 12 C. Although 12 C is definitely essential to life, its unstable sister isotope 14 C has become of extreme importance to the science world. Radiocarbon dating is the process of determining the age of a sample by examining the amount of 14 C remaining against its known half-life, 5, years. The reason this process works is because when organisms are alive, they are constantly replenishing their 14 C supply through respiration, providing them with a constant amount of the isotope. However, when an organism ceases to exist, it no longer takes in carbon from its environment and the unstable 14 C isotope begins to decay.
When news is announced on the discovery of an archaeological find, we often hear about how the age of the sample was determined using radiocarbon dating, otherwise simply known as carbon dating. Deemed the gold standard of archaeology, the method was developed in the late s and is based on the idea that radiocarbon carbon 14 is being constantly created in the atmosphere by cosmic rays which then combine with atmospheric oxygen to form CO2, which is then incorporated into plants during photosynthesis. When the plant or animal that consumed the foliage dies, it stops exchanging carbon with the environment and from there on in it is simply a case of measuring how much carbon 14 has been emitted, giving its age.