Geologist Ralph Harvey and historian Mott Greene explain the principles of radiometric dating and its application in determining the age of Earth. As the uranium in rocks decays, it emits subatomic particles and turns into lead at a constant rate. Measuring the uranium-to-lead ratios in the oldest rocks on Earth gave scientists an estimated age of the planet of 4. Segment from A Science Odyssey: Geologists have calculated the age of Earth at 4. But for humans whose life span rarely reaches more than years, how can we be so sure of that ancient date?
It turns out the answers are in Earth's rocks. Even the Greeks and Romans realized that layers of sediment in rock signified radiometric dating rocks age. But it wasn't until the late s -- when Scottish geologist James Hutton, who observed sediments building up on the landscape, set out to show that rocks were time clocks -- that serious scientific interest in geological age began.
Before then, the Bible had provided radiometric dating rocks only estimate for the age of the world: Hutton's theories were short on evidence at first, but by most scientists concurred that Noah's ark was more allegory than reality as they documented geological radiometric dating rocks. Using fossils as guides, they began to piece together a crude history of Earth, but it was an imperfect history. After all, the ever-changing Earth rarely left a complete geological record.
The age of the planet, though, was important to Charles Darwin and other evolutionary theorists: The biological evidence they were collecting showed that nature needed vastly more time than previously thought to sculpt the world. A breakthrough came with the discovery of radioactivity at the beginning of the s. Scientists discovered that rocks could be timepieces -- literally. Many chemical elements in rock exist in a number of slightly different forms, known as isotopes. Certain isotopes are unstable and undergo a process radiometric dating rocks radioactive decay, slowly and steadily transforming, molecule by molecule, into a different isotope.
This rate of decay is constant for a given isotope, and the time it takes for one-half of radiometric dating rocks particular isotope to decay is its radioactive half-life. For example, about 1. By measuring the ratio of lead to uranium in a rock radiometric dating rocks, its age can be determined. Using this technique, called radiometric dating, scientists are able to "see" back in time.