Archaeologists use the exponential, radioactive decay of carbon 14 to estimate the death dates of organic material.
The stable form of carbon is carbon 12 and the radioactive isotope carbon 14 decays over time into nitrogen 14 and other particles.
When an organism dies it ceases to replenish carbon in its tissues and the decay of carbon 14 to nitrogen 14 changes the ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 14.
Experts can compare the ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 14 in dead material to the ratio when the organism was alive to estimate the date of its death.
The ensuing atomic interactions create a steady supply of c14 that rapidly diffuses throughout the atmosphere.
Plants take up c14 along with other carbon isotopes during photosynthesis in the proportions that occur in the atmosphere; animals acquire c14 by eating the plants (or other animals).
For example, in 1991, two hikers discovered a mummified man, preserved for centuries in the ice on an alpine mountain.
Since then, the remains of those trees have been well preserved by the arid climate. To determine how long ago these droughts occurred, Scott is using carbon-14 to date the trees.
Unlike the other natural isotopes of carbon, carbon-14 is unstable. One of its neutrons turns into a proton and spits out an electron.
Radiocarbon dating can be used on samples of bone, cloth, wood and plant fibers.
The half-life of a radioactive isotope describes the amount of time that it takes half of the isotope in a sample to decay.