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The older a sample is, the less (the period of time after which half of a given sample will have decayed) is about 5,730 years, the oldest dates that can be reliably measured by this process date to around 50,000 years ago, although special preparation methods occasionally permit accurate analysis of older samples.The idea behind radiocarbon dating is straightforward, but years of work were required to develop the technique to the point where accurate dates could be obtained.Research has been ongoing since the 1960s to determine what the proportion of in the atmosphere has been over the past fifty thousand years.

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Other corrections must be made to account for the proportion of throughout the biosphere (reservoir effects).

Additional complications come from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, and from the above-ground nuclear tests done in the 1950s and 1960s.

Animals eat the plants, and ultimately the radiocarbon is distributed throughout the biosphere.

The ratio of λ is a constant that depends on the particular isotope; for a given isotope it is equal to the reciprocal of the mean-life – i.e.

the average or expected time a given atom will survive before undergoing radioactive decay. The calculations involve several steps and include an intermediate value called the "radiocarbon age", which is the age in "radiocarbon years" of the sample: an age quoted in radiocarbon years means that no calibration curve has been used − the calculations for radiocarbon years assume that the , which for more than a decade after Libby's initial work was thought to be 5,568 years.