But the question is, when does an atom or nucleus decide to decay? So it could either be beta decay, which would release electrons from the neutrons and turn them into protons. And normally when we have any small amount of any element, we really have huge amounts of atoms of that element. That's 6.02 times 10 to the 23rd carbon-12 atoms. This is more than we can, than my head can really grasp around how large of a number this is.

Let's say I have a bunch of, let's say these are all atoms. And let's say we're talking about the type of decay where an atom turns into another atom. Or maybe positron emission turning protons into neutrons. And we've talked about moles and, you know, one gram of carbon-12-- I'm sorry, 12 grams-- 12 grams of carbon-12 has one mole of carbon-12 in it.

In this interactive, learn how radiocarbon dating works, what it takes to determine a date in the lab, and why it's challenging to pinpoint a date precisely.

The technique hinges on carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of the element that, unlike other more stable forms of carbon, decays away at a steady rate.Organisms capture a certain amount of carbon-14 from the atmosphere when they are alive.By measuring the ratio of the radio isotope to non-radioactive carbon, the amount of carbon-14 decay can be worked out, thereby giving an age for the specimen in question. Inscriptions, distinctive markings, and historical documents can all offer clues to an artifact's age.And if the artifact is organic—like wood or bone—researchers can turn to a method called radiocarbon dating. So you might get a question like, I start with, oh I don't know, let's say I start with 80 grams of something with, let's just call it x, and it has a half-life of two years. So what we do is we come up with terms that help us get our head around this. So I wrote a decay reaction right here, where you have carbon-14. So now you have, after one half-life-- So let's ignore this. I don't know which half, but half of them will turn into it. And then let's say we go into a time machine and we look back at our sample, and let's say we only have 10 grams of our sample left. But even he “realized that there probably would be variation”, says Christopher Bronk Ramsey, a geochronologist at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the latest work, published today in Science.Various geologic, atmospheric and solar processes can influence atmospheric carbon-14 levels. Now you could say, OK, what's the probability of any given molecule reacting in one second? But we're used to dealing with things on the macro level, on dealing with, you know, huge amounts of atoms. So I have a description, and we're going to hopefully get an intuition of what half-life means. And how does this half know that it must stay as carbon? So if you go back after a half-life, half of the atoms will now be nitrogen. Then all of a sudden you can use the law of large numbers and say, OK, on average, if each of those atoms must have had a 50% chance, and if I have gazillions of them, half of them will have turned into nitrogen. How much time, you know, x is decaying the whole time, how much time has passed? I mean, maybe if we really got in detail on the configurations of the nucleus, maybe we could get a little bit better in terms of our probabilities, but we don't know what's going on inside of the nucleus, so all we can do is ascribe some probabilities to something reacting. And it does that by releasing an electron, which is also call a beta particle. And I've actually seen this drawn this way in some chemistry classes or physics classes, and my immediate question is how does this half know that it must turn into nitrogen? So that after 5,740 years, the half-life of carbon, a 50% chance that any of the guys that are carbon will turn to nitrogen. But we'll always have an infinitesimal amount of carbon. Let's say I'm just staring at one carbon atom. You know, I've got its nucleus, with its c-14. I mean, if you start approaching, you know, Avogadro's number or anything larger-- I erased that. After two years, how much are we going to have left? And then after two more years, I'll only have half of that left again.

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