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Radio Carbon Dating

QUESTION: Why do they call it radio carbon dating?


Why do they call it radio carbon dating? They call it radio carbon dating because carbon-14, the unstable isotope whose decay rate is used to date specimens, is radioactive. Carbon-14 (a.k.a. "radiocarbon") is produced when nitrogen-14 is bombarded in the upper atmosphere by cosmic radiation. A neutron collides with the nitrogen-14 atom displacing a proton, thereby changing the nitrogen atom into a carbon atom. Carbon always has six protons and nitrogen always has seven. If a nitrogen atom loses a proton it becomes a carbon atom.

Because the nitrogen-14 atom has seven neutrons as well as seven protons (7 + 7 = 14), when a neutron is added in the upper atmosphere (thereby displacing the proton) the new carbon atom has eight neutrons. The stable carbon-12 atom has six protons and six neutrons (6 + 6 = 12). The unstable carbon-14 atom has six protons and eight neutrons (6 + 8 = 14). Eventually the unstable carbon-14 atom will exchange one of its neutrons for a proton, thereby causing it to change back into nitrogen-14. This is the radioactive decay process.

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