When cosmic rays enter the atmosphere, they undergo various transformations, including the production of neutrons.
One side-effect of the change in atmospheric carbon-14 is that this has enabled some options (e.g., bomb-pulse dating Carbon-14 is produced in coolant at boiling water reactors (BWRs) and pressurized water reactors (PWRs).
This resemblance is used in chemical and biological research, in a technique called carbon labeling: carbon-14 atoms can be used to replace nonradioactive carbon, in order to trace chemical and biochemical reactions involving carbon atoms from any given organic compound.
These are relatively low energies; the maximum distance traveled is estimated to be 22 cm in air and 0.27 mm in body tissue.
A calculation or (more accurately) a direct comparison of carbon-14 levels in a sample, with tree ring or cave-deposit carbon-14 levels of a known age, then gives the wood or animal sample age-since-formation.
Carbon-14 is produced in the upper layers of the troposphere and the stratosphere by thermal neutrons absorbed by nitrogen atoms.
Liquid scintillation counting is the preferred method.