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Follow the links below to learn more about radiocarbon dating. Radiocarbon dating uses carbon isotopes A special kind of radiocarbon dating: Bomb radiocarbon dating What is an isotope?

To understand radiocarbon dating, you first have to understand the word Although an element’s number of protons cannot change, the number of neutrons can vary slightly from each atom.

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.

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View the full list Radiocarbon dating has transformed our understanding of the past 50,000 years.

Thus, as living things take in carbon, they inevitably will take up a small amount of radioactive carbon into their bodies.

When these lifeforms die, they stop taking in new carbon.

Rachel Wood does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Australian National University provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.

Professor Willard Libby produced the first radiocarbon dates in 1949 and was later awarded the Nobel Prize for his efforts.

Radiocarbon dating works by comparing the three different isotopes of carbon.

Carbon combines with other elements in complex ways to form the molecules that make up our bodies.

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