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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.But don't panic — of the 800,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 carbon atoms in every one of us, about 800,000,000,000,000 are carbon-14, so we've got a few to spare.Not only that, we top up our carbon-14 levels every time we eat.Everything from the fibres in the Shroud of Turin to Otzi the Iceman has had their birthday determined the carbon-14 way. There's plenty of hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen in living things too, but carbon's got something none of them do — a radioactive isotope that can take thousands of years to decay.(You can read up on radioactivity and isotopes here).

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And if the artifact is organic—like wood or bone—researchers can turn to a method called radiocarbon dating.Carbon-14, the radioactive version of carbon, is rare — it only makes up one trillionth of all the carbon in the world.Chemically, carbon-14 is no different from non-radioactive carbon atoms, so it ends up in all the usual carbon places — one trillionth of the carbon atoms in air, plants, animals and us are radioactive.All radioactive atoms eventually decay into something more stable, and carbon-14 decays into nitrogen.For a rare event it happens pretty damn often — one million carbon-14 atoms in your body decay into nitrogen every minute!

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