Absolute dating practice problems

Carbon is naturally in all living organisms and is replenished in the tissues by eating other organisms or by breathing air that contains carbon. At any particular time all living organisms have approximately the same ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 14 in their tissues. When an organism dies it ceases to replenish carbon in its tissues and the decay of carbon 14 to nitrogen 14 changes the ratio of carbon 12 to carbon Experts can compare the ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 14 in dead material to the ratio when the organism was alive to estimate the date of its death.

Radiocarbon dating can be used on samples of bone, cloth, wood and plant fibers. The half-life of a radioactive isotope describes the amount of time that it takes half of the isotope in a sample to decay.


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  • 5.7: Calculating Half-Life?

In the case of radiocarbon dating, the half-life of carbon 14 is 5, years. This half life is a relatively small number, which means that carbon 14 dating is not particularly helpful for very recent deaths and deaths more than 50, years ago. After 5, years, the amount of carbon 14 left in the body is half of the original amount.

Radiometric dating practice

Geologists were beginning to accept the views of Hutton that the Earth is unimaginably ancient. What key discovery, then, allowed geologists to begin assigning absolute age dates to rocks and ultimately discover the age of the Earth? The answer is radioactivity. Hypotheses of absolute ages of rocks as well as the events that they represent are determined from rates of radioactive decay of some isotopes of elements that occur naturally in rocks.

In chemistry, an element is a particular kind of atom that is defined by the number of protons that it has in its nucleus. The number of protons equals the element's atomic number. Have a look at the periodic table of the elements below. Carbon's C atomic number is 6 because it has six protons in its nucleus; gold's Au atomic number is 79 because it has 79 atoms in its nucleus. Periodic table of the elements. These variations are called isotopes. Most isotopes are stable, meaning that they do not change.

Radiometric dating

Some isotopes are unstable, however, and undergo radioactive decay. As a matter of convention, we call the atomic nucleus that undergoes radioactive decay the parent and the resulting product the daughter product or, decay product. The rate at which a particular parent isotope decays into its daughter product is constant. A half-life is the amount of time needed for half of the parent atoms in a sample to be changed into daughter products.

This is illustrated in the chart below. Relationship between the amount of radioactive parent atoms in a sample relative to the number of daughter atoms over the passage of time, measured in half-lives. Image by Jonathan R. After three half-lives, only As more half-lives pass, the number of parent atoms remaining approaches zero. Based on this principle, geologists can count the number of parent atoms relative to daughter products in a sample to determine how many half-lives have passed since a mineral grain first formed.

Consider the example shown below.

Digital Atlas of Ancient Life

An example of how the initial number of radioactive parent atoms blue diamonds in two mineral grains gray hexagons changes over time measured in half-lives relative to the number of daughter products red squares. The left-most box in the figure above represents an initial state, with parent atoms distributed throughout molten rock magma. As the magma cools, grains of different minerals begin to crystalize.


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  8. Some of these minerals represented above as gray hexagons incorporate the radioactive parent atoms blue diamonds into their crystalline structures; this marks the initiation of the "half-life clock" i. How many parent atoms would remain if three half-lives passed? By counting the numbers of parent atoms remaining in a sample relative to the number originally present, it is possible to determine the number of half-lives that have passed since the initial formation of a mineral grain that is, when it became a "closed system" that prevented parent and daughter atoms from escaping.

    You might be wondering how it is possible to know the number of parent atoms that were originally in a sample. This number is attained by simply adding the number of parent and daughter atoms currently in the sample because each daughter atom was once a parent atom. The next step in radiometric dating involves converting the number of half-lives that have passed into an absolute i.

    This is done by multiplying the number of half-lives that have passed by the half-life decay constant of the parent atom again, this value is determined in a laboratory. To summarize, the key piece of information that needs to be determined from a mineral specimen in order to determine its absolute age is its age in number of half lives.

    This can be mathematically determined by solving for y in this equation:. Let's work through a hypothetical example problem. Suppose you analyzed a mineral sample and found that it contained 33, parent atoms and 14, daughter atoms. Further, suppose that the half-life of the parent atom is 2.

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    How old is the mineral sample? First, we know that: So, we conclude that 0. As noted above, a radiometric date tells us when a system became closed, for example when a mineral containing radioactive parent elements first crystalized. An individual mineral grain may have a long history after it first forms.

    For example, it may erode out of an igneous rock and then be transported long distances and over long periods of time before it is finally deposited, becoming one grain among billions in a layer of sedimentary rock e.

    Calculating Half-Life - Chemistry LibreTexts

    Further, heating mineral grains to great temperatures can cause them to leak parent and daughter material, resetting their radiometric clocks. The melting involved with metamorphic change can reset the radiometric clock. For example, suppose an igneous rock formed 2. If it were subjected to metamorphism 1. As noted above, the rate at which a given radioactive isotope decays into its daughter product is constant. This rate, however, varies considerably among different radioactive isotopes.

    Further, many radioactive isotopes undergo a series of transformations--some of which have half-lives that persist for only very short amounts of time--before they are converted into their final daughter products. Below are some of the decay series that are commonly used in radiometric dating of geological samples.