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The most well-known of all the radiometric dating methods is radiocarbon dating.
Instead, the radiocarbon atoms in their bodies slowly decay away, so the ratio of carbon-14 atoms to regular carbon atoms will steadily decrease over time (figure 3).
Let’s suppose we find a mammoth’s skull, and we want to date it to determine how long ago it lived.
If we know what fraction of the carbon atoms are radioactive, we can also calculate how many radiocarbon atoms are in the lump.
Knowing the number of atoms that decayed in our sample over a month, we can calculate the radiocarbon decay rate.
So even we humans are radioactive because of trace amounts of radiocarbon in our bodies.
And as far as we know, it has been forming in the earth’s upper atmosphere at least since the Fall, after the atmosphere was made back on Day Two of creation week (part of the expanse, or firmament, described in Genesis 1:6–8). Cosmic rays from outer space are continually bombarding the upper atmosphere of the earth, producing fast-moving neutrons (sub-atomic particles carrying no electric charge) (figure 1).1 These fast-moving neutrons collide with nitrogen-14 atoms, the most abundant element in the upper atmosphere, converting them into radiocarbon (carbon-14) atoms.
Since the atmosphere is composed of about 78 percent nitrogen,2 a lot of radiocarbon atoms are produced—in total about 16.5 lbs. These rapidly combine with oxygen atoms (the second most abundant element in the atmosphere, at 21 percent) to form carbon dioxide (CO This carbon dioxide, now radioactive with carbon-14, is otherwise chemically indistinguishable from the normal carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is slightly lighter because it contains normal carbon-12.
The standard way of expressing the decay rate is called the half-life.5 It’s defined as the time it takes half a given quantity of a radioactive element to decay.
So if we started with 2 million atoms of carbon-14 in our measured quantity of carbon, then the half-life of radiocarbon will be the time it takes for half, or 1 million, of these atoms to decay.