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

In Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS), for example, the number of radiocarbon atoms in a stream of atoms coming from the sample is counted.

Thus there are statistical counting uncertainties proportional to the square root of the number of atoms counted.

The total mass of the isotope is indicated by the numerical superscript.

Here’s an example using the simplest atom, hydrogen. Carbon-14 is an unstable isotope of carbon that will eventually decay at a known rate to become carbon-12.

Modern accelerator mass spectrometry (used for radiocarbon dating purposes to separate radiocarbon atoms from stable carbon atoms and count them) is quite precise.

The technology involved is fascinating and impressive.

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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