fossils and radiometric dating

Lillie Cantrell, 33 years old


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If you want to know how old someone or something is, you can generally rely on some combination of simply asking questions or Googling to arrive at an accurate answer. This applies to everything from the age of a classmate to the number of years the United States has existed as a sovereign nation and counting as of But what about the ages of objects of antiquity, from a newly discovered fossil to the very age of the Earth itself? Sure, you can scour the Internet and learn rather quickly that the scientific consensus pins the age of of the planet at about 4. But Google didn't invent this number; instead, human ingenuity and applied physics have provided fossils and radiometric dating. Specifically, a process called radiometric dating allows scientists to determine the ages of objects, including the ages of rocks, ranging from thousands of years old to billions of years old to a marvelous degree of accuracy. This relies on a proven combination of basic mathematics and knowledge of the physical properties of different chemical elements.

The age of fossils can fossils and radiometric dating determined using stratigraphy, biostratigraphy, and radiocarbon dating. Paleontology seeks to map out how life evolved across geologic time. A substantial hurdle is the difficulty of working out fossil ages. There are several different methods for estimating the ages of fossils, including:. Paleontologists rely on stratigraphy to date fossils.

Relative dating and radiometric dating are used to determine age of fossils and geologic features, but with different methods. Relative dating uses observation of location within rock layers, while radiometric dating uses data from the decay of radioactive substances within an object. Relative dating observes the placement of fossils and rock in layers known as strata. Basically, fossils and rock found in lower strata are older than those found in higher strata because lower objects must have been deposited first, while higher objects were deposited last. Relative dating helps determine what came first and what followed, but doesn't help determine actual age. Radiometric dating, or numeric dating, determines an actual or approximate age of an object by studying the rate of decay of radioactive isotopes, such as uranium, potassium, rubidium and carbon within that object.
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Radiometric datingradioactive dating or radioisotope dating is a technique which is used to date materials such as rocks or carbonin which trace radioactive impurities were selectively incorporated when they were formed. The method compares the abundance of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope within the material to the abundance of its decay products, which form at fossils and radiometric dating known constant rate of decay. Together with stratigraphic principlesradiometric dating methods are used in geochronology to establish the geologic time scale. By allowing the establishment of geological timescales, it provides a significant source of information about the ages of fossils and the deduced rates of evolutionary change. Radiometric dating is also used to date archaeological materials, including ancient artifacts. Different methods of radiometric dating vary in the timescale over which they are accurate and the materials to which they can be applied. All ordinary matter is made up of combinations of chemical elementseach with its own atomic numberindicating the number of protons in the atomic nucleus. Additionally, elements may exist in different isotopeswith each isotope of an element differing in the number of neutrons in the nucleus. A particular isotope of a particular element is called a nuclide.

Geologists use radiometric dating to estimate how long ago rocks formed, and to infer the ages of fossils contained within those rocks. Radioactive elements decay The universe is full of naturally occurring radioactive elements. Radioactive atoms are inherently unstable; over time, radioactive "parent atoms" decay into stable "daughter atoms. When molten rock cools, forming what are called igneous rocks, radioactive atoms are trapped inside. Afterwards, they decay at a predictable rate. By measuring the quantity of unstable atoms left in a rock and comparing it to the quantity of stable daughter atoms in the rock, scientists can estimate the amount of time that has passed since that rock formed. Sedimentary rocks can fossils and radiometric dating dated using radioactive carbon, but because carbon decays relatively quickly, this only works for rocks younger than about 50 thousand years. So in order to date most older fossils, scientists look for layers of igneous rock or volcanic ash above and below the fossil. Scientists date igneous rock using elements that are slow to decay, such as uranium and potassium. By dating these surrounding layers, they can figure out the youngest and oldest that the fossil might be; this is known as "bracketing" the age of the sedimentary layer in which the fossils occur.

Many rocks and organisms contain radioactive isotopes, such as U and C These radioactive isotopes are unstable, decaying over time at a predictable rate. As the isotopes decay, they give off particles from their nucleus and become a different isotope. The parent isotope is the original unstable isotope, and daughter isotopes are the stable product of the decay. Half-life is the amount of time it takes for half of the parent isotopes to decay. The decay occurs on a logarithmic scale.
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