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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.

The older a sample is, the less (the period of time after which half of a given sample will have decayed) is about 5,730 years, the oldest dates that can be reliably measured by this process date to around 50,000 years ago, although special preparation methods occasionally permit accurate analysis of older samples.

The formal sciences are often excluded as they do not depend on empirical observations.

From classical antiquity through the 19th century, science as a type of knowledge was more closely linked to philosophy than it is now, and in the Western world the term "natural philosophy" once encompassed fields of study that are today associated with science, such as astronomy, medicine, and physics.

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.