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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.

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Scientists date igneous rock using elements that are slow to decay, such as uranium and potassium.

By dating these surrounding layers, they can figure out the youngest and oldest that the fossil might be; this is known as “bracketing” the age of the sedimentary layer in which the fossils occur.

Radiometric dating (often called radioactive dating) is a way to find out how old something is.

The method compares the amount of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope and its decay products, in samples. It is the main way to learn the age of rocks and other geological features, including the age of the Earth itself.

It may be used to date a wide range of natural and man-made materials.

Fossils may be dated by taking samples of rocks from above and below the fossil's original position.

Radiometric dating is also used to date archaeological materials, including ancient artifacts.

Learn about different types of radiometric dating, such as carbon dating.

Understand how decay and half life work to enable radiometric dating.

Play a game that tests your ability to match the percentage of the dating element that remains to the age of the object.

Geologists use radiometric dating to estimate how long ago rocks formed, and to infer the ages of fossils contained within those rocks. The universe is full of naturally occurring radioactive elements.

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