The atomic nucleus shown in the top half of this picture is carbon-14. The 14
C nucleus has 6 protons plus 8 neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 14.
Click on image for full size
Original artwork by Windows to the Universe staff (Randy Russell).
Carbon-14 is an isotope of the element carbon. All carbon atoms have 6 protons in their nucleus. Most carbon atoms also have 6 neutrons, giving them an atomic mass of 12 ( = 6 protons + 6 neutrons). Carbon-14 atoms have two extra neutrons, giving them a total of 8 neutrons. Carbon-14 has an atomic mass of 14 ( = 6 protons + 8 neutrons). The extra neutrons make the nucleus of carbon-14 unstable. Carbon-14 is radioactive!
Radioactive carbon-14 (also written as 14C) has a half-life of 5,730 years. 14C is used to determine the ages of artifacts that were once living (such as pieces of wood, teeth or bones, coral skeletons, etc.) via a technique called "carbon-14 dating" or "radiocarbon dating".
Some of the carbon dioxide gas in Earth's atmosphere contains 14C atoms. The supply of CO2 molecules which contain carbon-14 is continuously replenished in our atmosphere. Cosmic rays from space sporadically strike nitrogen atoms, converting some common nitrogen-14 atoms into radioactive carbon-14 atoms.
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