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And then you can use that rate to actually determine how long ago that thing must've died. It would be a pretty reasonable estimate to say, well, that thing must be 5,730 years old.
So the rate at which this happens, so the rate of carbon-14 decay, is essentially half disappears, half gone, in roughly 5,730 years. Even better, maybe you dig a little deeper, and you find another bone. And you say, wow, you know this thing right over here has 1/4 the carbon-14 that I would expect to find in something living. Well, if it only has 1/4 the carbon-14 it must have gone through two half lives.
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And then either later in this video or in future videos we'll talk about how it's actually used to date things, how we use it actually figure out that that bone is 12,000 years old, or that person died 18,000 years ago, whatever it might be. So let me just draw the surface of the Earth like that. So then you have the Earth's atmosphere right over here. And 78%, the most abundant element in our atmosphere is nitrogen. And we don't write anything, because it has no protons down here. And what's interesting here is once you die, you're not going to get any new carbon-14. You can't just say all the carbon-14's on the left are going to decay and all the carbon-14's on the right aren't going to decay in that 5,730 years.
It's just a little section of the surface of the Earth. And that carbon-14 that you did have at you're death is going to decay via beta decay-- and we learned about this-- back into nitrogen-14. So it'll decay back into nitrogen-14, and in beta decay you emit an electron and an electron anti-neutrino. But essentially what you have happening here is you have one of the neutrons is turning into a proton and emitting this stuff in the process. So I just said while you're living you have kind of straight-up carbon-14. What it's essentially saying is any given carbon-14 atom has a 50% chance of decaying into nitrogen-14 in 5,730 years.
So carbon by definition has six protons, but the typical isotope, the most common isotope of carbon is carbon-12. And then that carbon dioxide gets absorbed into the rest of the atmosphere, into our oceans. When people talk about carbon fixation, they're really talking about using mainly light energy from the sun to take gaseous carbon and turn it into actual kind of organic tissue.
But what's interesting is that a small fraction of carbon-14 forms, and then this carbon-14 can then also combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide.