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MIKKEL JUUL JENSEN / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY MIKKEL JUUL JENSEN / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Carbon-14 dating, illustration. Carbon-14 is an unstable isotope of the element carbon. Created by cosmic ray action on nitrogen (nitrogen-14) in the atmosphere (this process is shown at upper left), carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,700 years. The relative proportions of this isotope is is used in archaeology to date biological material. The decay of carbon-14 back to nitrogen-14 is shown at lower right. This radioactive decay takes place at a steady rate after an organism has died and is no longer taking up carbon from the environment. This allows the time since death to be calculated from the relative proportions of the isotopes of carbon.
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