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These include nitrogen (78 percent), oxygen (21 percent), argon (0.9 percent), carbon dioxide (0.03 percent), varying amounts of water vapor, and trace amounts of hydrogen, ozone, methane, carbon monoxide, helium, neon, krypton, and xenon.Cosmic rays, which contain even higher levels of energy than ultraviolet light, cause some of the atoms in the upper atmosphere to fly apart into pieces.Notice that the farther away the Mass Number gets from 12-13, the faster they break down (The blue numbers indicate half-lives, the time it takes for one half of the atoms in a sample to break down.).So the farther the carbon is from the norm, the more unstable it is. They have too many neutrons so they breakdown, releasing a beta particle which effectively converts a neutron into a proton.Two other reactions (Oxygen-17 reacting with neutrons, and He-4 reacting with Carbon-13) both produce Carbon-14, but with much smaller yields.
The atoms that we are particularly interested in are the ones that make up the earth's atmosphere.
To understand this process we must first understand a little bit about the atoms themselves and how they get their names.
Most carbon atoms have six positively charged protons and six uncharged neutrons.
The top number is the Mass Number for each isotope.
The Mass Number for any isotope is the addition of all the protons and neutrons in the nucleus.