The ensuing atomic interactions create a steady supply of c14 that rapidly diffuses throughout the atmosphere.
Plants take up c14 along with other carbon isotopes during photosynthesis in the proportions that occur in the atmosphere; animals acquire c14 by eating the plants (or other animals).
A more recent innovation is the direct counting of c14 atoms by accelerator mass spectrometers (AMS).
Many laboratories now use liquid scintillation counters with the samples being converted to benzene.
All of these counter types measure the C-14 content by monitering the rate of decay per unit time.
For example, it was once standard practice to simply burn whole bones, but the results were eventually seen to be unreliable.
Chemical methods for separating the organic (collagen) from the inorganic (apatite) components of bone created the opportunity to date both components and compare the results.
These so-called "solid-carbon" dates were soon found to yield ages somewhat younger than expected, and there were many other technical problems associated with sample preparation and the operation of the counters.
Gas proportional counters soon replaced the solid-carbon method in all laboratories, with the samples being converted to gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon disulfide, methane, or acetylene.
Pre-treatment seeks to remove from the sample any contaminating carbon that could yield an inaccurate date.
Acids may be used to eliminate contaminating carbonates.
During the lifetime of an organism, the amount of c14 in the tissues remains at an equilibrium since the loss (through radioactive decay) is balanced by the gain (through uptake via photosynthesis or consumption of organically fixed carbon).
However, when the organism dies, the amount of c14 declines such that the longer the time since death the lower the levels of c14 in organic tissue.
AMS technology has allowed us to date very small samples (such as seeds) that were previously undatable.