What do you mean, carbon 14 is radioactive?
Carbon 14 atoms seem to have a mind of their own. As far as carbon atoms go they are unconventional. They are unstable. They don't seem to want to be carbon atoms at all. They seem to want to be nitrogen atoms again and they know how to do it. By throwing off and electron and an anti-neutrino, voilà, the carbon 14 atom becomes a stable nitrogen 14 atom. In other words, the carbon 14 atoms is radioactive. The process is called radioactive decay. Decay is the right word to use because it implies a time duration.
How long before a carbon 14 atom reverts to being a nitrogen 14 atom? No one knows the answer for a single atom. It could happen in the next second or it could happen 50,000 years from now. There is no way to predict or to even know if it is predictable. What we know, however, is that for a quantity of atoms, say several billion or more, half of them will decay in 5730 years. Then in the next 5730 years, half of the remaining half will decay. And then again, of the half remaining of that half, half again will decay in another 5730 years. In other words carbon 14 has a half life of 5730 years.
- Astonishing balancing act in nature
- Carbon dating in 1988
- What is carbon dating?
- Why are carbon 14 levels consistent in living things?