This means that given a statistically large sample of carbon 14, we know that if we sit it in a box, go away, and come back in 5730 years, half of it will still be carbon 14, and the other half will have decayed.

Or in other words, if we have a box, and we don't know how old it is but we know it started with 100 carbon 14 atoms, and we open it and find only 50 carbon 14 atoms and some other stuff, we could say, 'Aha!

It must be 1 carbon 14 half-life (or 5730 years) old.' This is the basic idea behind carbon dating. In the atmosphere, cosmic rays smash into normal carbon 12 atoms (in atmospheric carbon dioxide), and create carbon 14 isotopes.

This equilibrium persists in living organisms as long as they continue living, but when they die, they no longer 'breathe' or eat new 14 carbon isotopes Now it's fairly simple to determine how many total carbon atoms should be in a sample given its weight and chemical makeup.

And given the fact that the ratio of carbon 14 to carbon 12 in living organisms is approximately 1 : 1.35x10 In actually measuring these quantities, we take advantage of the fact that the rate of decay (how many radioactive emissions occur per unit time) is dependent on how many atoms there are in a sample (this criteria leads to an exponential decay rate).

If you ever wondered why nuclear tests are now performed underground, this is why.

Most radiocarbon dating today is done using an accelerator mass spectrometer, an instrument that directly counts the numbers of carbon-14 and carbon-12 in a sample.

It’s not absolutely constant due to several variables that affect the levels of cosmic rays reaching the atmosphere, such as the fluctuating strength of the Earth’s magnetic field, solar cycles that influence the amount of cosmic rays entering the solar system, climatic changes and human activities.