What I want to do in this video is kind of introduce you to the idea of, one, how carbon-14 comes about, and how it gets into all living things. They can also be alpha particles, which is the same thing as a helium nucleus. And they're going to come in, and they're going to bump into things in our atmosphere, and they're actually going to form neutrons. And we'll show a neutron with a lowercase n, and a 1 for its mass number. And what's interesting about this is this is constantly being formed in our atmosphere, not in huge quantities, but in reasonable quantities. Because as soon as you die and you get buried under the ground, there's no way for the carbon-14 to become part of your tissue anymore because you're not eating anything with new carbon-14.
And then either later in this video or in future videos we'll talk about how it's actually used to date things, how we use it actually figure out that that bone is 12,000 years old, or that person died 18,000 years ago, whatever it might be. So let me just draw the surface of the Earth like that. So then you have the Earth's atmosphere right over here. And 78%, the most abundant element in our atmosphere is nitrogen. And we don't write anything, because it has no protons down here. And what's interesting here is once you die, you're not going to get any new carbon-14. You can't just say all the carbon-14's on the left are going to decay and all the carbon-14's on the right aren't going to decay in that 5,730 years.
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Archaeologists have long used carbon-14 dating (also known as radiocarbon dating) to estimate the age of certain objects.
Traditional radiocarbon dating is applied to organic remains between 500 and 50,000 years old and exploits the fact that trace amounts of radioactive carbon are found in the natural environment.
So carbon by definition has six protons, but the typical isotope, the most common isotope of carbon is carbon-12. And then that carbon dioxide gets absorbed into the rest of the atmosphere, into our oceans. When people talk about carbon fixation, they're really talking about using mainly light energy from the sun to take gaseous carbon and turn it into actual kind of organic tissue.
Now, new applications for the technique are emerging in forensics, thanks to research funded by NIJ and other organizations.
In recent years, forensic scientists have started to apply carbon-14 dating to cases in which law enforcement agencies hope to find out the age of a skeleton or other unidentified human remains.
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