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It can be used on objects as old as about 62,000 years.
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.
Radiocarbon dating uses isotopes of the element carbon. Cosmic rays – high energy particles from beyond the solar system – bombard Earth’s upper atmosphere continually, in the process creating the unstable carbon-14. Because it’s unstable, carbon-14 will eventually decay back to carbon-12 isotopes.
And so, like everything in chemistry, and a lot of what we're starting to deal with in physics and quantum mechanics, everything is probabilistic. So one of the neutrons must have turned into a proton and that is what happened. And you might say, oh OK, so maybe-- let's see, let me make nitrogen magenta, right there-- so you might say, OK, maybe that half turns into nitrogen. And over 5,740 years, you determine that there's a 50% chance that any one of these carbon atoms will turn into a nitrogen atom. And we could keep going further into the future, and after every half-life, 5,740 years, we will have half of the carbon that we started. Now, if you look at it over a huge number of atoms. But after two more years, how many are we going to have? So this is t equals 3 I'm sorry, this is t equals 4 years.
And maybe not carbon-12, maybe we're talking about carbon-14 or something. And then nothing happens for a long time, a long time, and all of a sudden two more guys decay. And the atomic number defines the carbon, because it has six protons. If they say that it's half-life is 5,740 years, that means that if on day one we start off with 10 grams of pure carbon-14, after 5,740 years, half of this will have turned into nitrogen-14, by beta decay. What happens over that 5,740 years is that, probabilistically, some of these guys just start turning into nitrogen randomly, at random points. So if we go to another half-life, if we go another half-life from there, I had five grams of carbon-14. So now we have seven and a half grams of nitrogen-14. This exact atom, you just know that it had a 50% chance of turning into a nitrogen.
Learn about different types of radiometric dating, such as carbon dating.