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Many people assume that rocks are dated at “millions of years” based on radiocarbon (carbon-14) dating. The most well-known of all the radiometric dating methods is radiocarbon dating.
Carbon-14 can yield dates of only “thousands of years” before it all breaks down.
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 1c).
Let’s suppose we find a mammoth’s skull and we want to date it to determine how long ago it lived.
Radioactive and non-radioactive carbon dioxide mix throughout the atmosphere, and dissolve into the oceans.
Next comes the question of how scientists use this knowledge to date things.
By comparing the surviving amount of carbon-14 to the original amount, scientists can calculate how long ago the animal died.
Since the atmosphere is composed of about 78% nitrogen,2 a lot of radiocarbon atoms are produced—in total about 16.5 pounds (7.5 kg) per year.
These excited neutrons then collide with nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere, changing them into radioactive carbon-14 atoms.
CARBON-14 IS ABSORBED (Figure 1b): Plants absorb this carbon-14 during photosynthesis.
Radiocarbon then enters animals as they consume the plants (Figure 1b).