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Plants and animals assimilate carbon 14 from carbon dioxide throughout their lifetimes.
When they die, they stop exchanging carbon with the biosphere and their carbon 14 content then starts to decrease at a rate determined by the law of radioactive decay.
Radiocarbon dating is essentially a method designed to measure residual radioactivity.
By knowing how much carbon 14 is left in a sample, the age of the organism when it died can be known. Some inorganic matter, like a shell’s aragonite component, can also be dated as long as the mineral’s formation involved assimilation of carbon 14 in equilibrium with the atmosphere.
Archaeology and other human sciences use radiocarbon dating to prove or disprove theories.
Over the years, carbon 14 dating has also found applications in geology, hydrology, geophysics, atmospheric science, oceanography, paleoclimatology, and even biomedicine.
The impact of the radiocarbon dating technique on modern man has made it one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century.