But the most accurate forms of absolute age dating are radiometric methods. Sedimentary rocks in particular are notoriously radioactive-free zones.
This method works because some unstable (radioactive) isotopes of some elements decay at a known rate into daughter products. Half-life simply means the amount of time it takes for half of a remaining particular isotope to decay to a daughter product. Good discussion from the US Geological Survey: geochronolgists just measure the ratio of the remaining parent atom to the amount of daughter and voila, they know how long the molecule has been hanging out decaying. So to date those, geologists look for layers like volcanic ash that might be sandwiched between the sedimentary layers, and that tend to have radioactive elements.
It’s based either on fossils which are recognized to represent a particular interval of time, or on radioactive decay of specific isotopes. Based on the Rule of Superposition, certain organisms clearly lived before others, during certain geologic times.
After all, a dinosaur wouldn’t be caught dead next to a trilobite.
That’s because zircon is super tough – it resists weathering. Each radioactive isotope works best for particular applications.
The half-life of carbon 14, for example, is 5,730 years.
I also like this simple exercise, a spin-off from an activity described on the USGS site above.
Take students on a neighborhood walk and see what you can observe about age dates around you.
For example, which is older, the bricks in a building or the building itself?
Are there repairs or cracks in the sidewalk that came after the sidewalk was built?
What’s more, if the whole rock is badly weathered, it will be hard to find an intact mineral grain containing radioactive isotopes.
You might have noticed that many of the oldest age dates come from a mineral called zircon.
Ninety-nine percent of these also contain six neutrons.