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If you ever wondered why nuclear tests are now performed underground, this is why.Most radiocarbon dating today is done using an accelerator mass spectrometer, an instrument that directly counts the numbers of carbon-14 and carbon-12 in a sample.A detailed description of radiocarbon dating is available at the Wikipedia radiocarbon dating web page.
Radiocarbon dating uses isotopes of the element carbon. Cosmic rays – high-energy particles from beyond the solar system – bombard Earth’s upper atmosphere continually, in the process creating the unstable carbon-14. Because it’s unstable, carbon-14 will eventually decay back to carbon-12 isotopes.
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Back in the 1940s, the American chemist Willard Libby used this fact to determine the ages of organisms long dead.
Most carbon atoms have six protons and six neutrons in their nuclei and are called carbon 12. But a tiny percentage of carbon is made of carbon 14, or radiocarbon, which has six protons and eight neutrons and is not stable: half of any sample of it decays into other atoms after 5,700 years.