The universe is full of naturally occurring radioactive elements.
Radioactive atoms are inherently unstable; over time, radioactive "parent atoms" decay into stable "daughter atoms." When molten rock cools, forming what are called igneous rocks, radioactive atoms are trapped inside. By measuring the quantity of unstable atoms left in a rock and comparing it to the quantity of stable daughter atoms in the rock, scientists can estimate the amount of time that has passed since that rock formed.
Scientists use two kinds of dating techniques to work out the age of rocks and fossils. This considers the positions of the different rocks in sequence (in relation to each other) and the different types of fossil that are found in them.
The second method is called absolute dating and is done by analysing the amount of radioactive decay in the minerals of the rocks.
In an undisturbed sequence of rocks, such as in a cliff face, it is easy to get a rough idea of the ages of the individual strata – the oldest lies at the bottom and the youngest lies at the top.
This is because new sediments are always laid down on top of sediments that have already been deposited.
The thing that makes this decay process so valuable for determining the age of an object is that each radioactive isotope decays at its own fixed rate, which is expressed in terms of its half-life.
So, if you know the radioactive isotope found in a substance and the isotope's half-life, you can calculate the age of the substance. Well, a simple explanation is that it is the time required for a quantity to fall to half of its starting value.
A fossil will always be younger than fossils in the beds beneath it and this is called the principle of superposition.
Learn about half-life and how it is used in different dating methods, such as uranium-lead dating and radiocarbon dating, in this video lesson. As we age, our hair turns gray, our skin wrinkles and our gait slows.
However, rocks and other objects in nature do not give off such obvious clues about how long they have been around.
Fossils are generally found in sedimentary rock not igneous rock.
Sedimentary rocks can be dated using radioactive carbon, but because carbon decays relatively quickly, this only works for rocks younger than about 50 thousand years.