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For more information on cosmic rays and half-life, as well as the process of radioactive decay, see How Nuclear Radiation Works.­The carbon-14 atoms that cosmic rays create combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, which plants absorb naturally and incorporate into plant fibers by photosynthesis.Plants and animals assimilate carbon 14 from carbon dioxide throughout their lifetimes.When they die, they stop exchanging carbon with the biosphere and their carbon 14 content then starts to decrease at a rate determined by the law of radioactive decay.At this moment, your body has a certain percentage of carbon-14 atoms in it, and all living plants and animals have the same percentage.An age could be estimated by measuring the amount of carbon-14 present in the sample and comparing this against an internationally used reference standard.For example, every person is hit by about half a million cosmic rays every hour.It is not uncommon for a cosmic ray to collide with an atom in the atmosphere, creating a secondary cosmic ray in the form of an energetic neutron, and for these energetic neutrons to collide with nitrogen atoms.

More information on the sources of error in carbon dating are presented at the bottom of this page.After the organism dies, carbon-14 continues to decay without being replaced.To measure the amount of radiocarbon left in a artifact, scientists burn a small piece to convert it into carbon dioxide gas.Radiocarbon, or carbon 14, is an isotope of the element carbon that is unstable and weakly radioactive. Carbon 14 is continually being formed in the upper atmosphere by the effect of cosmic ray neutrons on nitrogen 14 atoms.It is rapidly oxidized in air to form carbon dioxide and enters the global carbon cycle.

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