Carbon is naturally in all living organisms and is replenished in the tissues by eating other organisms or by breathing air that contains carbon.At any particular time all living organisms have approximately the same ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 14 in their tissues.When an organism dies it ceases to replenish carbon in its tissues and the decay of carbon 14 to nitrogen 14 changes the ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 14.Experts can compare the ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 14 in dead material to the ratio when the organism was alive to estimate the date of its death.Atoms of the same element that have different numbers of neutrons are called isotopes. Most carbon on Earth exists as the very stable isotope carbon-12, with a very small amount as carbon-13.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.
Because the ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 14 present in all living organisms is the same, and because the decay rate of carbon 14 is constant, the length of time that has passed since an organism has died can be calculated by comparing the ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 14 in its remains to the known ratio in living organisms. Our Living Language : In the late 1940s, American chemist Willard Libby developed a method for determining when the death of an organism had occurred.American physical chemist Willard Libby led a team of scientists in the post World War II era to develop a method that measures radiocarbon activity.He is credited to be the first scientist to suggest that the unstable carbon isotope called radiocarbon or carbon 14 might exist in living matter. Libby and his team of scientists were able to publish a paper summarizing the first detection of radiocarbon in an organic sample. Libby who first measured radiocarbon’s rate of decay and established 5568 years ± 30 years as the half-life. Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in recognition of his efforts to develop radiocarbon dating.Organisms at the base of the food chain that photosynthesize – for example, plants and algae – use the carbon in Earth’s atmosphere.They have the same ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 as the atmosphere, and this same ratio is then carried up the food chain all the way to apex predators, like sharks.