These isotopes are stable, which is why they are with us today, but unstable isotopes are also present in minute amounts.
In the case of radiocarbon dating, the half-life of carbon 14 is 5,730 years.
This half life is a relatively small number, which means that carbon 14 dating is not particularly helpful for very recent deaths and deaths more than 50,000 years ago.
When an organism dies it ceases to replenish carbon in its tissues and the decay of carbon 14 to nitrogen 14 changes the ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 14.
Experts can compare the ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 14 in dead material to the ratio when the organism was alive to estimate the date of its death.
This rare, unstable isotope is produced from ordinary nitrogen 14.