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Plants fix atmospheric carbon during photosynthesis, so the level of C14 in living plants and animals equals the level of C14 in the atmosphere. Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5730 years and would have long ago vanished from Earth were it not for the unremitting cosmic ray impacts on nitrogen in the Earth's atmosphere, which create more of the isotope.
The neutrons resulting from the cosmic ray interactions participate in the following nuclear reaction on the atoms of nitrogen molecules (N The highest rate of carbon-14 production takes place at altitudes of 9 to 15 km (30,000 to 50,000 ft), and at high geomagnetic latitudes, but the carbon-14 spreads evenly throughout the atmosphere and reacts with oxygen to form carbon dioxide.
In 1960, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for this work.
One of the frequent uses of the technique is to date organic remains from archaeological sites.
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.
Carbon-14 has a relatively short half-life of 5,730 years, meaning that the fraction of carbon-14 in a sample is halved over the course of 5,730 years due to radioactive decay to nitrogen-14.
The carbon-14 isotope would vanish from Earth's atmosphere in less than a million years were it not for the constant influx of cosmic rays interacting with molecules of nitrogen (N) into organic compounds during photosynthesis, the resulting fraction of the isotope 14C in the plant tissue will match the fraction of the isotope in the atmosphere.
Other corrections must be made to account for the proportion of throughout the biosphere (reservoir effects).
Additional complications come from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, and from the above-ground nuclear tests done in the 1950s and 1960s.