Back in the 1940s, the American chemist Willard Libby used this fact to determine the ages of organisms long dead.
Most carbon atoms have six protons and six neutrons in their nuclei and are called carbon 12. But a tiny percentage of carbon is made of carbon 14, or radiocarbon, which has six protons and eight neutrons and is not stable: half of any sample of it decays into other atoms after 5,700 years.
A child mummy is found high in the Andes and the archaeologist says the child lived more than 2,000 years ago.
How do scientists know how old an object or human remains are?
Scientists across countless disciplines rely on it to date objects that are tens of thousands of years old. An analysis by Heather Graven, a climate-physics researcher at Imperial College London, finds that today's rate of fossil-fuel emissions is skewing the ratio of carbon that scientists use to determine an object's age.
The period of time that it takes for half of a sample to decay is called a "half-life." Radiocarbon oxidizes (that is, it combines with oxygen) and enters the biosphere through natural processes like breathing and eating.
You probably have seen or read news stories about fascinating ancient artifacts.
At an archaeological dig, a piece of wooden tool is unearthed and the archaeologist finds it to be 5,000 years old.
C-14 is produced in the upper atmosphere when nitrogen-14 (N-14) is altered through the effects of cosmic radiation bombardment (a proton is displaced by a neutron effectively changing the nitrogen atom into a carbon isotope).
The new isotope is called "radiocarbon" because it is radioactive, though it is not dangerous.