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Isotopes participate in the same chemical reactions but often at differing rates.When isotopes are to be designated specifically, the chemical symbol is expanded to identify the mass (for example, C is not stable.

Radiocarbon, or carbon 14, is an isotope of the element carbon that is unstable and weakly radioactive. Carbon 14 is continually being formed in the upper atmosphere by the effect of cosmic ray neutrons on nitrogen 14 atoms.

Ninety-nine percent of these also contain six neutrons.

The 6 proton 6 neutron atoms are said to have a mass of 12 and are referred to as "carbon-12." The nuclei of the remaining one percent of carbon atoms contain not six but either seven or eight neutrons in addition to the standard six protons.

Signals of this kind are often used by chemists studying natural environments.

A hydrocarbon found in beach sediments, for example, might derive from an oil spill or from waxes produced by plants.

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The pathway from the plant to the molecule may have been indirect or lengthy, involving multiple physical, chemical, and biological processes.

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