C-14, also known as carbon-14, is a radioactive isotope of carbon with an atomic mass of 14. It is an unstable atom that undergoes radioactive decay, transforming into nitrogen-14 over time. The "C" in C-14 stands for carbon, while the "14" represents the sum of the atomic particles (protons and neutrons) present in the atom's nucleus.
C-14 is created in the Earth's upper atmosphere through the interaction of cosmic rays with nitrogen-14 atoms. This process forms carbon-14, which then mixes with ordinary carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Through photosynthesis, plants and other living organisms incorporate C-14 into their tissues, causing them to contain a certain concentration of this isotope.
Due to its radioactive nature, C-14 undergoes a predictable decay rate with a half-life of approximately 5,730 years. This property has made it valuable in the field of radiocarbon dating, which is used to determine the age of organic materials up to about 50,000 years old. By measuring the ratio of C-14 to stable carbon-12 in a sample, scientists can estimate how long ago the organic material stopped exchanging carbon with the environment.
C-14 dating has been widely used in archaeology, geology, and other sciences to gain insights into the timelines of various events, such as the age of ancient artifacts, the development of civilizations, and the dynamics of past climate changes.
The term "C-14" originates from the scientific notation used to describe the isotope known as carbon-14. The name "carbon-14" itself refers to the element carbon, which is symbolized as "C" in the periodic table and has an atomic number of 6. The number 14 represents the mass number of this particular isotope, which is determined by the sum of the protons and neutrons in its nucleus.