It is not uncommon for a cosmic ray to collide with an atom in the atmosphere, creating a secondary cosmic ray in the form of an energetic neutron, and for these energetic neutrons to collide with nitrogen atoms.When the neutron collides, a nitrogen-14 (seven protons, seven neutrons) atom turns into a carbon-14 atom (six protons, eight neutrons) and a hydrogen atom (one proton, zero neutrons).Carbon-14 is radioactive, with a half-life of about 5,700 years.
The carbon-14 atoms that cosmic rays create combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, which plants absorb naturally and incorporate into plant fibers by photosynthesis.
Animals and people eat plants and take in carbon-14 as well.
The ratio of normal carbon (carbon-12) to carbon-14 in the air and in all living things at any given time is nearly constant.
-14 is continually formed in nature by the interaction of neutrons with nitrogen-14 in the Earth’s atmosphere; the neutrons required for this reaction are produced by cosmic rays interacting with the atmosphere.
Radiocarbon present in molecules of atmospheric : it is absorbed from the air by green plants and then passed on to animals through the food chain.
Radiocarbon decays slowly in a living organism, and the amount lost is continually replenished as long as the organism takes in air or food.Once the organism dies, however, it ceases to absorb carbon-14, so that the amount of the radiocarbon in its tissues steadily decreases.Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 ± 40 years—, half the amount of the radioisotope present at any given time will undergo spontaneous disintegration during the succeeding 5,730 years.Because carbon-14 decays at this constant rate, an estimate of the date at which an organism died can be made by measuring the amount of its residual radiocarbon.Cosmic rays enter the earth's atmosphere in large numbers every day.For example, every person is hit by about half a million cosmic rays every hour.