Radiocarbon dating has undergone a number of ‘revolutions’ in the past 50 years. This is in part because it is a field in continuous development, but perhaps more because of its profound impact on archaeology and the nature of interdisciplinary research. In order to understand the use of radiocarbon as a dating tool, it is necessary to understand the life cycle of radiocarbon, from its production in the upper atmosphere, through its sequestration in reservoirs and samples and its final decay. Different elements in this life cycle lead to complications, or subtleties that need to be understood if we wish to develop high-resolution chronologies. Most of the changes that have influenced radiocarbon dating are revolutions in understanding of the natural world in disparate academic disciplines. More than ever, it is necessary for users of radiocarbon to understand and engage with the science that underlies the method.