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When it comes to dating archaeological samples, several timescale problems arise.
For example, Christian time counts the birth of Christ as the beginning, AD 1 (Anno Domini); everything that occurred before Christ is counted backwards from AD as BC (Before Christ).
Once an organism is decoupled from these cycles (i.e., death), then the carbon-14 decays until essentially gone.
The half-life of a radioactive isotope (usually denoted by \(t_\)) is a more familiar concept than \(k\) for radioactivity, so although Equation \(\ref\) is expressed in terms of \(k\), it is more usual to quote the value of \(t_\).
The carbon-14 isotope would vanish from Earth's atmosphere in less than a million years were it not for the constant influx of cosmic rays interacting with molecules of nitrogen (NFigure 1: Diagram of the formation of carbon-14 (forward), the decay of carbon-14 (reverse).
Carbon-14 is produced in the upper atmosphere when cosmic rays bombard nitrogen atoms.
During the lifetime of an organism, the amount of c14 in the tissues remains at an equilibrium since the loss (through radioactive decay) is balanced by the gain (through uptake via photosynthesis or consumption of organically fixed carbon).
However, when the organism dies, the amount of c14 declines such that the longer the time since death the lower the levels of c14 in organic tissue.
Since carbon is fundamental to life, occurring along with hydrogen in all organic compounds, the detection of such an isotope might form the basis for a method to establish the age of ancient materials.
Libby, a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Chicago, predicted that a radioactive isotope of carbon, known as carbon-14, would be found to occur in nature.
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Radiocarbon dating (usually referred to simply as carbon-14 dating) is a radiometric dating method.