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When a creature dies, it ceases to consume more carbon.Since carbon-12 doesn't naturally decay while carbon-14 does, once a creature stops incorporating more carbon into its body, the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-14 in its body begins to change, with less carbon-14 per carbon-12 as time passes.Thus the ratio of stable C-12 to unstable C-14, which is known in today's open environment, changes over time in an isolated specimen. As long as the tree lives, it absorbs carbon from the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, both C-12 and C-14.Once the tree dies, it ceases to take in new carbon, and any C-14 present begins to decay.I know can be hard to wrap your head around, so let's model it with a six-sided die. You can use Lego bricks, pennies, beans—anything you can easily count. Every time you roll a one, put that object into a separate pile.Count the remaining objects and repeat the process until half of them have decayed. It took a while, but we finally got pretty close to 40 tiles left.
This means that as more of these atoms decay you have a lower rate of radioactive decay. If you roll a one, then that object decays and turns into something else.
Carbon-14 on the other hand is an unstable isotope; that is, it decays naturally over time. It is produced naturally in the atmosphere and mixes with carbon-12 becoming part of our planet's biosphere.
As creatures consume carbon from their environment and incorporate it into their bodies, they consume both carbon-12 and carbon-14.
Since creatures incorporate carbon-12 and carbon-14 into their bodies at about the same ratio as it occurs in the atmosphere during their lifetimes, by looking at the ratio in the atmosphere today and by comparing it to the ratio as it is found in the specimen we are examining, we are able to determine when the specimen stopped consuming more carbon-14 (i.e. This is, of course, assuming that we know how long it takes for carbon-14 to decay and that we know that the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-14 in the atmosphere today is about the same as if was during the creature's lifetime.
If either assumption is wrong carbon-14 dating doesn't work.