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Radiometric dating is often referred to as “radioactive dating” and “carbon dating,” though many different types of isotopes can be used to identify an object’s age.
While not all objects have the same isotopes, both living and nonliving objects have some sort of decaying, radioactive isotope that can be used based on known decay rates. An isotope of some sort is located and isolated within an object.
These break down over time in a process scientists call radioactive decay.
Each original isotope, called the parent, gradually decays to form a new isotope, called the daughter.
Because of their unique decay rates, different elements are used for dating different age ranges.
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.
Most directly measure the amount of isotopes in rocks, using a mass spectrometer.
The table below shows characteristics of some common radiometric dating methods.Geologists choose a dating method that suits the materials available in their rocks. Measuring isotopes is particularly useful for dating igneous and some metamorphic rock, but not sedimentary rock.Sedimentary rock is made of particles derived from other rocks, so measuring isotopes would date the original rock material, not the sediments they have ended up in.These use radioactive minerals in rocks as geological clocks.The atoms of some chemical elements have different forms, called isotopes.