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First of all, it's predicated upon a set of questionable assumptions.We have to assume, for example, that the rate of decay (that is, a 5,730 year half-life) has remained constant throughout the unobservable past.C-14 is produced in the upper atmosphere when nitrogen-14 (N-14) is altered through the effects of cosmic radiation bombardment (a proton is displaced by a neutron effectively changing the nitrogen atom into a carbon isotope).The new isotope is called "radiocarbon" because it is radioactive, though it is not dangerous.This man-made fluctuation wasn't a natural occurrence, but it demonstrates the fact that fluctuation is possible and that a period of natural upheaval upon the earth could greatly affect the ratio.Volcanoes spew out CO which could just as effectively decrease the ratio.The amount of cosmic rays penetrating the earth's atmosphere is itself affected by things like the earth's magnetic field which deflects cosmic rays.Precise measurements taken over the last 140 years have shown a steady decay in the strength of the earth's magnetic field.
Since the atmosphere is composed of about 78 percent nitrogen,2 a lot of radiocarbon atoms are produced—in total about 16.5 lbs. These rapidly combine with oxygen atoms (the second most abundant element in the atmosphere, at 21 percent) to form carbon dioxide (CO This carbon dioxide, now radioactive with carbon-14, is otherwise chemically indistinguishable from the normal carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is slightly lighter because it contains normal carbon-12.
However, there is strong evidence which suggests that radioactive decay may have been greatly accelerated in the unobservable past.
We must also assume that the ratio of C-12 to C-14 in the atmosphere has remained constant throughout the unobservable past (so we can know what the ratio was at the time of the specimen's death).
So, if we find the remains of a dead creature whose C-12 to C-14 ratio is half of what it's supposed to be (that is, one C-14 atom for every two trillion C-12 atoms instead of one in every trillion) we can assume the creature has been dead for about 5,730 years (since half of the radiocarbon is missing, it takes about 5,730 years for half of it to decay back into nitrogen).
If the ratio is a quarter of what it should be (one in every four trillion) we can assume the creature has been dead for 11,460 year (two half-lives).
Specimens which lived and died during a period of intense volcanism would appear older than they really are if they were dated using this technique.