Suppose you find a fossil at one place that cannot be dated using absolute methods.
Relative dating is used to arrange geological events, and the rocks they leave behind, in a sequence.
The method of reading the order is called stratigraphy (layers of rock are called strata).
The number of parent atoms originally present is simply the number present now plus the number of daughter atoms formed by the decay, both of which are quantities that can be measured.
Samples for dating are selected carefully to avoid those that are altered, contaminated, or disturbed by later heating or chemical events.
As radioactive Parent atoms decay to stable daughter atoms (as uranium decays to lead) each disintegration results in one more atom of the daughter than was initially present and one less atom of the parent.
The probability of a parent atom decaying in a fixed period of time is always the same for all atoms of that type regardless of temperature, pressure, or chemical conditions. The time required for one-half of any original number of parent atoms to decay is the half-life, which is related to the decay constant by a simple mathematical formula.
In addition to the ages of Earth, Moon, and meteorites, radiometric dating has been used to determine ages of fossils, including early man, timing of glaciations, ages of mineral deposits, recurrence rates of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the history of reversals of Earth's magnetic field, and the age and duration of a wide variety of other geological events and processes.
The above equation makes use of information on the composition of parent and daughter isotopes at the time the material being tested cooled below its closure temperature.
Students begin by observing a photograph and a diagram of rock layers near Whanganui, watch an animation about how the layers were formed, then use an interactive labelling diagram to work out the order in which the rocks were created.
The activity offers literacy opportunities as well as practice using the science capability 'Interpret representations'.
Some of the most useful fossils for dating purposes are very small ones.