Research has been ongoing since the 1960s to determine what the proportion of in the atmosphere has been over the past fifty thousand years.
The resulting data, in the form of a calibration curve, is now used to convert a given measurement of radiocarbon in a sample into an estimate of the sample's calendar age.
This usually requires what is commonly known as a "dating method".
Several dating methods exist, depending on different criteria and techniques, and some very well known examples of disciplines using such techniques are, for example, history, archaeology, geology, paleontology, astronomy and even forensic science, since in the latter it is sometimes necessary to investigate the moment in the past in which the death of a cadaver occurred.
But this method is also useful in many other disciplines.
Historians, for example, know that Shakespeare's play Henry V was not written before 1587 because Shakespeare's primary source for writing his play was the second edition of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, not published until 1587.
The resulting radiocarbon combines with atmospheric oxygen to form radioactive carbon dioxide, which is incorporated into plants by photosynthesis; animals then acquire in a sample from a dead plant or animal such as a piece of wood or a fragment of bone provides information that can be used to calculate when the animal or plant died.
For example, based on the primate fossil record, scientists know that living primates evolved from fossil primates and that this evolutionary history took tens of millions of years.
By comparing fossils of different primate species, scientists can examine how features changed and how primates evolved through time.
Relative dating methods are unable to determine the absolute age of an object or event, but can determine the impossibility of a particular event happening before or after another event of which the absolute date is well known.
In this relative dating method, Latin terms ante quem and post quem are usually used to indicate both the oldest and the most recent possible moments when an event occurred or an artifact was left in a stratum.
Thus, 1587 is the post quem dating of Shakespeare's play Henry V.