As soon as a living organism dies, it stops taking in new carbon.The ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-14 at the moment of death is the same as every other living thing, but the carbon-14 decays and is not replaced.The carbon-14 isotope would vanish from Earth's atmosphere in less than a million years were it not for the constant influx of cosmic rays interacting with molecules of nitrogen (NFigure 1: Diagram of the formation of carbon-14 (forward), the decay of carbon-14 (reverse).
It might take a millisecond, or it might take a century. But if you have a large enough sample, a pattern begins to emerge.
It takes a certain amount of time for half the atoms in a sample to decay.
Dedicated at the University of Chicago on October 10, 2016.
In 1946, Willard Libby proposed an innovative method for dating organic materials by measuring their content of carbon-14, a newly discovered radioactive isotope of carbon.
Korff predicted that the reaction between these neutrons and nitrogen-14, which predominates in the atmosphere, would produce carbon-14, also called radiocarbon.
Libby cleverly realized that carbon-14 in the atmosphere would find its way into living matter, which would thus be tagged with the radioactive isotope.Other useful radioisotopes for radioactive dating include Uranium -235 (half-life = 704 million years), Uranium -238 (half-life = 4.5 billion years), Thorium-232 (half-life = 14 billion years) and Rubidium-87 (half-life = 49 billion years).The use of various radioisotopes allows the dating of biological and geological samples with a high degree of accuracy.Once an organism is decoupled from these cycles (i.e., death), then the carbon-14 decays until essentially gone.The half-life of a radioactive isotope (usually denoted by \(t_\)) is a more familiar concept than \(k\) for radioactivity, so although Equation \(\ref\) is expressed in terms of \(k\), it is more usual to quote the value of \(t_\).The carbon-14 decays with its half-life of 5,700 years, while the amount of carbon-12 remains constant in the sample.