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Plants absorb C-14 during photosynthesis, so C-14 is incorporated into the cellular structure of plants.Plants are then eaten by animals, making C-14 a part of the cellular structure of all living things.Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 ± 40 years—, half the amount of the radioisotope present at any given time will undergo spontaneous disintegration during the succeeding 5,730 years.Because carbon-14 decays at this constant rate, an estimate of the date at which an organism died can be made by measuring the amount of its residual radiocarbon.Research has been ongoing since the 1960s to determine what the proportion of in the atmosphere has been over the past fifty thousand years.The resulting data, in the form of a calibration curve, is now used to convert a given measurement of radiocarbon in a sample into an estimate of the sample's calendar age.

Libby received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in 1960.The radiocarbon dating method is based on the fact that radiocarbon is constantly being created in the atmosphere by the interaction of cosmic rays with atmospheric nitrogen.The resulting radiocarbon combines with atmospheric oxygen to form radioactive carbon dioxide, which is incorporated into plants by photosynthesis; animals then acquire in a sample from a dead plant or animal such as a piece of wood or a fragment of bone provides information that can be used to calculate when the animal or plant died.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.Scientists look at half-life decay rates of radioactive isotopes to estimate when a particular atom might decay.A useful application of half-lives is radioactive dating.Carbon-14 is continually formed in nature by the interaction of neutrons with nitrogen-14 in the Earth’s atmosphere; the neutrons required for this reaction are produced by cosmic rays interacting with the atmosphere.Radiocarbon present in molecules of atmospheric carbon dioxide enters the biological carbon cycle: it is absorbed from the air by green plants and then passed on to animals through the food chain.It can’t be used to determine the age of a moon rock or a meteorite.For nonliving substances, scientists use other isotopes, such as potassium-40.

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