Carbon has two stable, nonradioactive isotopes: carbon-12 (12C) and carbon-13 (13C).
And it has seven protons, and it also has seven neutrons. So the different versions of a given element, those are each called isotopes. So anyway, we have our atmosphere, and then coming from our sun, we have what's commonly called cosmic rays, but they're actually not rays. You can view them as just single protons, which is the same thing as a hydrogen nucleus. But every now and then one of those neutrons will bump into one of the nitrogen-14's in just the right way so that it bumps off one of the protons in the nitrogen and essentially replaces that proton with itself. But this number 14 doesn't go down to 13 because it replaces it with itself. And now since it only has six protons, this is no longer nitrogen, by definition. And that proton that was bumped off just kind of gets emitted. But this process-- and once again, it's not a typical process, but it happens every now and then-- this is how carbon-14 forms. You can essentially view it as a nitrogen-14 where one of the protons is replaced with a neutron. It makes its way into oceans-- it's already in the air, but it completely mixes through the whole atmosphere-- and the air. And plants are really just made out of that fixed carbon, that carbon that was taken in gaseous form and put into, I guess you could say, into kind of a solid form, put it into a living form. It gets put into plants, and then it gets put into the things that eat the plants. Well, the interesting thing is the only time you can take in this carbon-14 is while you're alive, while you're eating new things.
After plants die or are consumed by other organisms, the incorporation of all carbon isotopes, including 14C, stops.
Thereafter, the concentration (fraction) of 14C declines at a fixed exponential rate due to the radioactive decay of 14C. ) Comparing the remaining 14C fraction of a sample to that expected from atmospheric 14C allows us to estimate the age of the sample.
Common materials for radiocarbon dating are: The radiocarbon formed in the upper atmosphere is mostly in the form of carbon dioxide. Because the carbon present in a plant comes from the atmosphere in this way, the radio of radiocarbon to stable carbon in the plant is virtually the same as that in the atmosphere.
Plant eating animals (herbivores and omnivores) get their carbon by eating plants.
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.
The dating process is always designed to try to extract the carbon from a sample which is most representative of the original organism.
In general it is always better to date a properly identified single entity (such as a cereal grain or an identified bone) rather than a mixture of unidentified organic remains.
To give an example if a sample is found to have a radiocarbon concentration exactly half of that for material which was modern in 1950 the radiocarbon measurement would be reported as 5568 BP.
For two important reasons, this does not mean that the sample comes from 3619 BC: Many types of tree reliably lay down one tree ring every year.