Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 ± 40 years, meaning that every 5,700 years or so the object loses half its carbon-14.

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Though still heavily used, relative dating is now augmented by several modern dating techniques.

Radiocarbon dating involves determining the age of an ancient fossil or specimen by measuring its carbon-14 content.

A common misconception about radiocarbon dating is that it gives a precise date---3577 B. In actual practice radiocarbon dating can only give a range of dates for a given sample---3650 to 3410 B.

C., for example---the true date lying somewhere in that range.

Carbon-14, or radiocarbon, is a naturally occurring radioactive isotope that forms when cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere strike nitrogen molecules, which then oxidize to become carbon dioxide.

Green plants absorb the carbon dioxide, so the population of carbon-14 molecules is continually replenished until the plant dies.

Carbon-14 is also passed onto the animals that eat those plants.

After death the amount of carbon-14 in the organic specimen decreases very regularly as the molecules decay.

The precision of a radiocarbon date tells how narrow the range of dates is.

Love-hungry teenagers and archaeologists agree: dating is hard.

But while the difficulties of single life may be intractable, the challenge of determining the age of prehistoric artifacts and fossils is greatly aided by measuring certain radioactive isotopes.