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Ever wonder how scientists concluded the age of the earth to be about 4.6 billion years old or how geologists determined the ages of caverns, rocks, volcanoes and the Himalayas? Well, scientists are able to answer all of these wondrous questions and more by use of a process called radiometric or radioactive dating.
Radioactive dating enables geologists to record the history of the earth and its events, such as the dinosaur era, within what they call the geologic time scale.
Radioactive dating uses the ratios of isotopes and their specific decay products to determine the ages of rocks, fossils and other substances.
Elements occur naturally in the earth, and they can tell us a lot about our Earth's past.
When a sample is found, scientists measure the amount of the original or parent isotope and compare it to the amount of the decay product formed.
The half-life is the amount of time it takes for half of the atoms of a specific isotope to decay.
(Remember, isotopes are variations of elements with a different number of neutrons.) The half-life is reliable in dating artifacts because it is not affected by environmental or chemical factors; it does not change.
Carbon, uranium and potassium are just a few examples of elements used in radioactive dating.
The isotope doesn't actually deteriorate; it just changes into something else.
Isotopes decay at a constant rate known as the half-life.
Within the nucleus, we find neutrons and protons; but for now, let's just focus on the neutrons.
These neutrons can become unstable, and when they do, they release energy and undergo decay. Radioactivity occurs when the nucleus contains an excess amount of neutrons.
When an atom varies in the number of neutrons, the variation is called an isotope. During radioactivity, the unstable isotope breaks down and changes into a different substance.
A new, more stable isotope, called the decay or daughter product, takes its place.