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This discussion is a simplified introduction to radiocarbon dating.
There are exceptions to the theories and relationships introduced below that are beyond the scope of this discussion.
The ratio of normal carbon (carbon-12) to carbon-14 in the air and in all living things at any given time is nearly constant.
Radiocarbon, or carbon-14 (also written as C), is an isotope of carbon that is unstable and weakly radioactive.
This carbon dioxide rapidly mixes throughout the atmosphere, where at ground level it is taken in by plants during photosynthesis.
This process is constantly ongoing, so that at any point in time the amount of carbon-14 in living plants is the same as the amount of carbon-14 in the air around them.
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Some examples of the types of material that radiocarbon can determine the ages of are wood, charcoal, marine and freshwater shell, bone and antler, and peat and organic-bearing sediments.
Both Carbon-12 and Carbon-13 are stable, but Carbon-14 decays by very weak beta decay to nitrogen-14 with a half-life of approximately 5,730 years.