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Isotopes are two or more atoms that have the same number of protons (i.e. they are of the same element), but different numbers of neutrons.[1] For example, the most common isotope of hydrogen has a single proton and no neutrons in its nucleus. A very small proportion of hydrogen atoms are of the isotope deuterium (with one proton and one neutron)[2] or tritium (with one proton and two neutrons).[3] Another example is the element carbon that most stably occurs in nature as carbon-12, which contains 6 neutrons, indicating an atomic mass of 12 (6 protons and 6 neutrons). However, an common unstable isotope, carbon-14, which contains 8 neutrons and is popularly used by scientist to date artifacts, has an atomic mass of 14 (6 protons and 8 neutrons).

Isotopes can be very difficult to separate because they have the same external electron shell configuration, which gives them basically identical chemical beheavior. This means that they must be separated by physical means such as diffusion, centrifugation, or sometimes fractional distillation. (See also: Radioactive isotope)


  1. Wile, Dr. Jay L. Exploring Creation With Physical Science. Apologia Educational Ministries, Inc. 1999, 2000
  2. Deuterium -
  3. Tritium -