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The radioactive isotope carbon-14 is created in the upper atmosphere when cosmic-ray particles from outer space strike nitrogen atoms and transform them into radioactive carbon.
Some of the carbon-14 might find its way into living creatures.
But what's interesting is that a small fraction of carbon-14 forms, and then this carbon-14 can then also combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide.
And carbon-14 is constantly doing this decay thing. So over the course of 5,730 years, roughly half of them will have decayed. Well, if you know that all living things have a certain proportion of carbon-14 in their tissue, as kind of part of what makes them up, and then if you were to find some bone-- let's just say find some bone right here that you dig it up on some type of archaeology dig.
For example, every person is hit by about half a million cosmic rays every hour.
By 1950, Willard Libby and his group at the University of Chicago had worked out ways to measure this proportion precisely.
Their exquisitely sensitive instrumentation was originally developed for studies in entirely different fields including nuclear physics, biomedicine, and detecting fallout from bomb tests.(1) Much of the initial interest in carbon-14 came from archeology, for the isotope could assign dates to Egyptian mummies and the like.
Climate science required the invention and mastery of many difficult techniques.
These had pitfalls, which could lead to controversy.
Carbon-14 is radioactive, with a half-life of about 5,700 years.