Measuring isotopes is particularly useful for dating igneous and some metamorphic rock, but not sedimentary rock.
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These rates of decay are known, so if you can measure the proportion of parent and daughter isotopes in rocks now, you can calculate when the rocks were formed.
Because of their unique decay rates, different elements are used for dating different age ranges.
Most directly measure the amount of isotopes in rocks, using a mass spectrometer.
Others measure the subatomic particles that are emitted as an isotope decays.
This Buzzle post enlists the differences between the absolute and relative dating methods.
Geological specimens that are unearthed need to be assigned an appropriate age.
For example, the decay of potassium-40 to argon-40 is used to date rocks older than 20,000 years, and the decay of uranium-238 to lead-206 is used for rocks older than 1 million years.
Radiocarbon dating measures radioactive isotopes in once-living organic material instead of rock, using the decay of carbon-14 to nitrogen-14.
When ‘parent’ uranium-238 decays, for example, it produces subatomic particles, energy and ‘daughter’ lead-206.
Isotopes are important to geologists because each radioactive element decays at a constant rate, which is unique to that element.
Each original isotope, called the parent, gradually decays to form a new isotope, called the daughter.