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The radiocarbon dating method is based on the fact that radiocarbon is constantly being created in the atmosphere by the interaction of cosmic rays with atmospheric nitrogen.

The resulting radiocarbon combines with atmospheric oxygen to form radioactive carbon dioxide, which is incorporated into plants by photosynthesis; animals then acquire in a sample from a dead plant or animal such as a piece of wood or a fragment of bone provides information that can be used to calculate when the animal or plant died.

the average or expected time a given atom will survive before undergoing radioactive decay. The calculations involve several steps and include an intermediate value called the "radiocarbon age", which is the age in "radiocarbon years" of the sample: an age quoted in radiocarbon years means that no calibration curve has been used − the calculations for radiocarbon years assume that the , which for more than a decade after Libby's initial work was thought to be 5,568 years.

This was revised in the early 1960s to 5,730 years, which meant that many calculated dates in papers published prior to this were incorrect (the error in the half-life is about 3%).

The deepest parts of the ocean mix very slowly with the surface waters, and the mixing is uneven.

Research has been ongoing since the 1960s to determine what the proportion of in the atmosphere has been over the past fifty thousand years.

The resulting data, in the form of a calibration curve, is now used to convert a given measurement of radiocarbon in a sample into an estimate of the sample's calendar age.

When a date is quoted, the reader should be aware that if it is an uncalibrated date (a term used for dates given in radiocarbon years) it may differ substantially from the best estimate of the actual calendar date, both because it uses the wrong value for the half-life of and each component is also referred to individually as a carbon exchange reservoir.

The different elements of the carbon exchange reservoir vary in how much carbon they store, and in how long it takes for the Accumulated dead organic matter, of both plants and animals, exceeds the mass of the biosphere by a factor of nearly 3, and since this matter is no longer exchanging carbon with its environment, it has a ratio having remained the same over the preceding few thousand years.

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