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This tendency to decay, called radioactivity, is what gives radiocarbon the name radiocarbon.

The atmosphere contains many stable carbon atoms and relatively few radiocarbon atoms.

Not only that, we top up our carbon-14 levels every time we eat.

And plants top up their radioactive carbon every time they turn carbon dioxide to food during photosynthesis.

(This, in turn, is caused by variations in the magnetic fields of the earth and sun, for example.) Although the ratio of radiocarbon to stable carbon in the atmosphere has varied over time, it is quite uniform around the globe at any given time because the atmosphere mixes very quickly and constantly.

Plants obtain all their carbon atoms from the atmosphere.

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.

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But don't panic — of the 800,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 carbon atoms in every one of us, about 800,000,000,000,000 are carbon-14, so we've got a few to spare.

And we talk about the word isotope in the chemistry playlist. But this number up here can change depending on the number of neutrons you have. And every now and then-- and let's just be clear-- this isn't like a typical reaction. So instead of seven protons we now have six protons. And a proton that's just flying around, you could call that hydrogen 1. If it doesn't gain an electron, it's just a hydrogen ion, a positive ion, either way, or a hydrogen nucleus. And so this carbon-14, it's constantly being formed. I've just explained a mechanism where some of our body, even though carbon-12 is the most common isotope, some of our body, while we're living, gets made up of this carbon-14 thing.

So carbon by definition has six protons, but the typical isotope, the most common isotope of carbon is carbon-12. And then that carbon dioxide gets absorbed into the rest of the atmosphere, into our oceans. When people talk about carbon fixation, they're really talking about using mainly light energy from the sun to take gaseous carbon and turn it into actual kind of organic tissue.

As you learned in the previous page, carbon dating uses the half-life of Carbon-14 to find the approximate age of certain objects that are 40,000 years old or younger.

In the following section we are going to go more in-depth about carbon dating in order to help you get a better understanding of how it works.

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