Radiometric dating is a technique used to date materials based on a knowledge of the decay rates of naturally occurring isotopes , and the current abundances. It is our principal source of information about the age of the Earth and a significant source of information about rates of evolutionary change. All ordinary matter is made up of combinations of chemical elements , each with its own atomic number , indicating the number of protons in the atomic nucleus. Additionally, elements may exist in different isotopes , with each isotope of an element differing only in the number of neutrons in the nucleus. A particular isotope of a particular element is called a nuclide. Some nuclides are inherently unstable.
Dating Using Radioactive Decay | Introduction to Chemistry
Radiometric dating involves dating rocks or other objects by measuring the extent to which different radioactive isotopes or nuclei have decayed. Although the time at which any individual atom will decay cannot be forecast, the time in which any given percentage of a sample will decay can be calculated to varying degrees of accuracy. The time that it takes for half of a sample to decay is known as the half life of the isotope. Some isotopes have half lives longer than the present age of the universe , but they are still subject to the same laws of quantum physics and will eventually decay, even if doing so at a time when all remaining atoms in the universe are separated by astronomical distances.
What was missing from the early geologic time scale? While the order of events was given, the dates at which the events happened were not. With the discovery of radioactivity in the late s, scientists were able to measure the absolute age , or the exact age of some rocks in years. Absolute dating allows scientists to assign numbers to the breaks in the geologic time scale.
Until the 18th century, this question was principally in the hands of theologians, who based their calculations on biblical chronology. Bishop James Ussher, a 17th-century Irish cleric, for example, calculated that creation occurred in B. There were many other such estimates, but they invariably resulted in an Earth only a few thousand years old. By the late 18th century, some naturalists had begun to look closely at the ancient rocks of the Earth. They observed that every rock formation, no matter how ancient, appeared to be formed from still older rocks.