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It is rapidly oxidized in air to form carbon dioxide and enters the global carbon cycle.
Plants and animals assimilate carbon 14 from carbon dioxide throughout their lifetimes.
Radiocarbon decays slowly in a living organism, and the amount lost is continually replenished as long as the organism takes in air or food.
Once the organism dies, however, it ceases to absorb carbon-14, so that the amount of the radiocarbon in its tissues steadily decreases.
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.
Over the years, other secondary radiocarbon standards have been made.
Radiocarbon activity of materials in the background is also determined to remove its contribution from results obtained during a sample analysis.
The principal modern standard used by radiocarbon dating labs was the Oxalic Acid I obtained from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland. Around 95% of the radiocarbon activity of Oxalic Acid I is equal to the measured radiocarbon activity of the absolute radiocarbon standard—a wood in 1890 unaffected by fossil fuel effects.
When they die, they stop exchanging carbon with the biosphere and their carbon 14 content then starts to decrease at a rate determined by the law of radioactive decay.
Radiocarbon dating is essentially a method designed to measure residual radioactivity.
No other scientific method has managed to revolutionize man’s understanding not only of his present but also of events that already happened thousands of years ago.
Archaeology and other human sciences use radiocarbon dating to prove or disprove theories.
There are three principal techniques used to measure carbon 14 content of any given sample— gas proportional counting, liquid scintillation counting, and accelerator mass spectrometry.