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Maybe one in a trillion carbon atoms are carbon-14.

The carbon-14 atoms are always decaying, but they are being replaced by new carbon-14 atoms at a constant rate.

This means that although they are very similar chemically, they have different masses.

The total mass of the isotope is indicated by the numerical superscript.

Radiocarbon dating has transformed our understanding of the past 50,000 years.

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From these records a “calibration curve” can be built (see figure 2, below).

The approximate time since the organism died can be worked out by measuring the amount of carbon-14 left in its remains compared to the amount in living organisms.

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While the lighter isotopes C has decayed that what remains can no longer be measured. In 5,730 years half of the C in the atmosphere, and therefore in plants and animals, has not always been constant.

Radioactive decay can be used as a “clock” because it is unaffected by physical (e.g. For instance, the amount varies according to how many cosmic rays reach Earth.

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