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The starting ratio of radiocarbon to stable carbon is locked in at that point. The purpose in each of these methods is to determine the ratio of radiocarbon to stable carbon in the sample.

From then on, the ratio of radiocarbon to stable carbon will decrease, because the unstable radiocarbon atoms will slowly decay. From this measurement the age in radiocarbon years is calculated. Modern radiocarbon dates are calibrated using long tree-ring chronologies.

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This tendency to decay, called radioactivity, is what gives radiocarbon the name radiocarbon.

Animals (and humans) get their carbon atoms primarily from what they eat (i.e., plants).

Thus the ratio of radiocarbon to stable carbon in living animal tissue is also virtually the same as the ratio of radiocarbon to stable carbon in the atmosphere at any given time.

Carbon-14 is continually formed in nature by the interaction of neutrons with nitrogen-14 in the Earth’s atmosphere; the neutrons required for this reaction are produced by cosmic rays interacting with the atmosphere.

Radiocarbon present in molecules of atmospheric carbon dioxide enters the biological carbon cycle: it is absorbed from the air by green plants and then passed on to animals through the food chain.

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