Note that, contrary to a popular misconception, carbon dating is not used to date rocks at millions of years old.Before we get into the details of how radiometric dating methods are used, we need to review some preliminary concepts from chemistry.The carbon-14 atoms that cosmic rays create combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, which plants absorb naturally and incorporate into plant fibers by photosynthesis.
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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.
Carbon-14 is radioactive, with a half-life of about 5,700 years.
For more information on cosmic rays and half-life, as well as the process of radioactive decay, see How Nuclear Radiation Works.
Cosmic rays enter the earth's atmosphere in large numbers every day.
For example, every person is hit by about half a million cosmic rays every hour.Protons and neutrons make up the center (nucleus) of the atom, and electrons form shells around the nucleus.The number of protons in the nucleus of an atom determines the element.It is not uncommon for a cosmic ray to collide with an atom in the atmosphere, creating a secondary cosmic ray in the form of an energetic neutron, and for these energetic neutrons to collide with nitrogen atoms.When the neutron collides, a nitrogen-14 (seven protons, seven neutrons) atom turns into a carbon-14 atom (six protons, eight neutrons) and a hydrogen atom (one proton, zero neutrons).This assumption is backed by numerous scientific studies and is relatively sound.