How do we know radiometric dating works

The ratio of the parent to daughter then can be used to back-calculate the age of that rock.

Dating history

The reason we know that radiometric dating works so well is because we can use several different isotope systems for example, Uranium-Lead, Lutetium-Halfnium, Potassium-Argon on the same rock, and they all come up with the same age. This gives geologists great confidence that the method correctly determines when that rock formed.

Hope that helps, and please ask if you'd like more details!

Dating advances

I think that I will start by answering the second part of your question, just because I think that will make the answer to the first question clearer. Radiometric dating is the use of radioactive and radiogenic those formed from the decay of radioactive parents isotopes isotopes are atoms of the same element that have different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei to determine the age of something. It is commonly used in earth science to determine the age of rock formations or features or to figure out how fast geologic processes take place for example, how fast marine terraces on Santa Cruz island are being uplifted.

Radiometric dating relies on the principle of radioactive decay. All radioactive isotopes have a characteristic half-life the amount of time that it takes for one half of the original number of atoms of that isotope to decay. By measuring the parent isotope radioactive and the daughter isotope radiogenic in a system for example, a rock , we can tell how long the system has been closed in our example, when the rock formed.

The process of radiogenic dating is usually done using some sort of mass spectrometer.

Radiometric Dating Does Work!

A mass spectrometer is an instrument that separates atoms based on their mass. Because geochronologists want to measure isotopes with different masses, a mass spectrometer works really well for dating things. I do think that radiometric dating is an accurate way to date the earth, although I am a geochronologist so I have my biases. Most estimates of the age of the earth come from dating meteorites that have fallen to Earth because we think that they formed in our solar nebula very close to the time that the earth formed.

The fact that the age we calculate is reproducible for these different systems is significant.

How Does Radiometric Dating Work? - Ars Technica

We have also obtained a very similar age by measuring Pb isotopes in materials from earth. I should mention that the decay constants basically a value that indicates how fast a certain radioactive isotope will decay for some of these isotope systems were calculated by assuming that the age of the earth is 4. The decay constants for most of these systems have been confirmed in other ways, adding strength to our argument for the age of the earth.


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Radiometric dating depends on the chemistry and ratios of different elements. It works like this:. Take, for example, zircon, which is a mineral; its chemical formula is ZiSiO 4 , so there is one zirconium Zi for one silicon Si for four oxygen O.

Radiometric dating

One of the elements that can stand in chemically for zircon is uranium. Uranium eventually decays into lead, and lead does not normally occur in zircon, except as the radioactive decay product of uranium. Therefore, by measuring the ratio of lead to uranium in a crystal of zircon, you can tell how much uranium there originally was in the crystal, which, combined with knowing the radioactive half-life of uranium, tells you how old the crystal is. Radiocarbon dating was the first method that allowed archaeologists to place what they found in chronological order without the need for written records or coins.

In the 19th and early 20th century incredibly patient and careful archaeologists would link pottery and stone tools in different geographical areas by similarities in shape and patterning. Then, by using the idea that the styles of objects evolve, becoming increasing elaborate over time, they could place them in order relative to each other - a technique called seriation. In this way large domed tombs known as tholos or beehive tombs in Greece were thought to predate similar structures in the Scottish Island of Maeshowe.

This supported the idea that the classical worlds of Greece and Rome were at the centre of all innovations. Some of the first radiocarbon dates produced showed that the Scottish tombs were thousands of years older than those in Greece. The barbarians of the north were capable of designing complex structures similar to those in the classical world. Other high profile projects include the dating of the Turin Shroud to the medieval period, the dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls to around the time of Christ, and the somewhat controversial dating of the spectacular rock art at Chauvet Cave to c.

Radiocarbon dating has also been used to date the extinction of the woolly mammoth and contributed to the debate over whether modern humans and Neanderthals met.

Radiometric Dating Does Work! | NCSE

But 14 C is not just used in dating. Using the same techniques to measure 14 C content, we can examine ocean circulation and trace the movement of drugs around the body.

But these are topics for separate articles. See more Explainer articles on The Conversation. An analytical journey measuring contaminants in water around the globe — Portsmouth, Hampshire. Conserving the Herringham Collection — Egham, Surrey. Geniuses, Heroes and Saints: Jazz session with Chris Whiter — Egham, Surrey.

Available editions United Kingdom. Rachel Wood , Australian National University. Make no bones about it, radiocarbon dating has transformed our understanding of the past. Dating history When living things die, tissue is no longer being replaced and the radioactive decay of 14 C becomes apparent. Carbon dioxide is used in photosynthesis by plants, and from here is passed through the food chain.

Dating advances Radiocarbon dates are presented in two ways because of this complication. Home earth Earth History Geologist Radioactive. Read about How do we know the Age of the Earth? Radiometric dating using the naturally-occurring radioactive elements is simple in concept even though technically complex. If we know the number of radioactive parent atoms present when a rock formed and the number present now, we can calculate the age of the rock using the decay constant. The number of parent atoms originally present is simply the number present now plus the number of daughter atoms formed by the decay, both of which are quantities that can be measured.

Samples for dating are selected carefully to avoid those that are altered, contaminated, or disturbed by later heating or chemical events. In addition to the ages of Earth, Moon, and meteorites, radiometric dating has been used to determine ages of fossils, including early man, timing of glaciations, ages of mineral deposits, recurrence rates of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the history of reversals of Earth's magnetic field, and the age and duration of a wide variety of other geological events and processes.