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What was once a seven-proton nitrogen became a six-proton carbon.But unlike most carbon atoms, which have six protons six and neutrons, this radioactive carbon, known as 14 C, retained nitrogen’s two extra neutrons, a difference in atomic mass that is small, but measurable.To our bodies, one type of carbon is as good as any other, so 14 C is used when building our cells, our proteins, and our DNA.
“It’s an amazingly powerful tool, whether you want to look at a fat cell or a brain cell,” Spalding says.
Standing outside the low, gray industrial building, she watched as horses went in one side and, about 15 minutes later, a worker appeared on the other end, holding a head, neurons and all.
“It was precisely as revolting as it sounds,” she says.
When looking for carbon isotopes, the instrument strips carbon atoms of some of their electrons and launches them into a magnetic field, which alters each atom’s trajectory.
Inertia causes heavier atoms, like 14 C, to take a wider path than lighter ones.