Love-hungry teenagers and archaeologists agree: But while the difficulties of single life may be intractable, the challenge of determining the age of prehistoric artifacts and fossils is greatly aided by measuring certain radioactive isotopes.
Until this century, relative dating was the only technique for identifying the age of a truly ancient object. By examining the object's relation to layers of deposits in the area, and by comparing the object to others found at the site, archaeologists can estimate when the object arrived at the site.
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Though still heavily used, relative dating is now augmented by several modern dating techniques. Radiocarbon dating involves determining the age of an ancient fossil or specimen by measuring its carbon content.
Only hard parts, like bones and teeth, can become fossils. But for some people, the discovery raised a different question. How do scientists know the bones are really 68 million years old?
How Do Scientists Date Ancient Things?
Today's knowledge of fossil ages comes primarily from radiometric dating , also known as radioactive dating. Radiometric dating relies on the properties of isotopes.
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These are chemical elements, like carbon or uranium, that are identical except for one key feature -- the number of neutrons in their nucleus. Atoms may have an equal number of protons and neutrons.
If, however, there are too many or too few neutrons, the atom is unstable, and it sheds particles until its nucleus reaches a stable state. Think of the nucleus as a pyramid of building blocks.
If you try to add extra blocks to the sides pyramid, they may stay put for a while, but they'll eventually fall away. The same is true if you take a block away from one of the pyramid's sides, making the rest unstable.
How Do Scientists Determine the Age of Dinosaur Bones? | HowStuffWorks
Eventually, some of the blocks can fall away, leaving a smaller, more stable structure. The result is like a radioactive clock that ticks away as unstable isotopes decay into stable ones. You can't predict when a specific unstable atom, or parent , will decay into a stable atom, or daughter.
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