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The amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere has not changed in thousands of years.Even though it decays into nitrogen, new carbon-14 is always being formed when cosmic rays hit atoms high in the atmosphere.The methods work because radioactive elements are unstable, and they are always trying to move to a more stable state. This process by which an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy by releasing radiation is called radioactive decay.The thing that makes this decay process so valuable for determining the age of an object is that each radioactive isotope decays at its own fixed rate, which is expressed in terms of its half-life.

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The rate of decay is often referred to as the activity of the isotope and is often measured in Curies (Ci), one curie = 3.700 x 10" is the initial amount of radioisotope at the beginning of the period, and "k" is the rate constant for the radioisotope being studied.

The age of the fossil must be determined so it can be compared to other fossil species from the same time period.

Understanding the ages of related fossil species helps scientists piece together the evolutionary history of a group of organisms.

A fossil can be studied to determine what kind of organism it represents, how the organism lived, and how it was preserved.

However, by itself a fossil has little meaning unless it is placed within some context.