These changes typically occur so slowly that they are barely detectable over the span of a human life, yet even at this instant, the Earth's surface is moving and changing.
As these changes have occurred, organisms have evolved, and remnants of some have been preserved as fossils.
The methods work because radioactive elements are unstable, and they are always trying to move to a more stable state. This process by which an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy by releasing radiation is called radioactive decay.
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.
Different methods of radiometric dating can be used to estimate the age of a variety of natural and even man-made materials.
To date a radioactive rock, geologists first measure the “sand grains” in the top glass bowl (the parent radioisotope, such as uranium-238 or potassium-40).
They also measure the sand grains in the bottom bowl (the daughter isotope, such as lead-206 or argon-40, respectively).
Despite seeming like a relatively stable place, the Earth's surface has changed dramatically over the past 4.6 billion years.
Mountains have been built and eroded, continents and oceans have moved great distances, and the Earth has fluctuated from being extremely cold and almost completely covered with ice to being very warm and ice-free.
Free 5-day trial Radiometric dating is used to estimate the age of rocks and other objects based on the fixed decay rate of radioactive isotopes.