The most precise method of dating rocks, in which the relative percentages of ‘parent’ and ‘daughter’ isotopes of a given radioactive element are estimated. Early methods relied on uranium and thorium minerals, but potassium–argon, rubidium–strontium, samarium–neodymium, and carbon-14–carbon-12 are now of considerable importance. Uranium-238 decays to lead-206 with a half-life of 4.5 billion (109) years, rubidium-87 decays to strontium-87 with a half-life of 50.0 billion years, and potassium-40 decays to argon-40 with a half-life of 1.5 billion years. For carbon-14 the half-life is a mere 5730 ± 30 years (see radiocarbon dating). It is important that the radioactive isotope be contained within the sample being dated. Carbon-14 is contained within plant material, but potassium-40, argon-40, and uranium-238 are contained satisfactorily only within crystals. Igneous rocks are the most suitable for dating. Fossils occur mostly in sedimentary rocks, however, so absolute dates can be calculated for them less commonly than might be supposed. The only exceptions are fossils occurring in glauconite, a clay mineral containing potassium and argon which forms authigenically on the bottom of shelf seas.
Subjects: Ecology and Conservation.