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My purpose here is not to review and discuss all of the dating methods in use.Instead, I describe briefly only the three principal methods. These are the three methods most commonly used by scientists to determine the ages of rocks because they have the broadest range of applicability and are highly reliable when properly used.
Unbeknownst to the scientists engaged in this controversy, however, geology was about to be profoundly affected by the same discoveries that revolutionized physics at the turn of the 20th century.
By the early 1960s, most of the major radiometric dating techniques now in use had been tested and their general limitations were known.
No technique, of course, is ever completely perfected and refinement continues to this day, but for more than two decades radiometric dating methods have been used to measure reliably the ages of rocks, the Earth, meteorites, and, since 1969, the Moon.
James Hutton, a physician-farmer and one of the founders of the science of geology, wrote in 1788, “The result, therefore, of our present inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, — no prospect of an end.” Although this may now sound like an overstatement, it nicely expresses the tremendous intellectual leap required when geologic time was finally and forever severed from the artificial limits imposed by the length of the human lifetime.
By the mid- to late 1800s, geologists, physicists, and chemists were searching for ways to quantify the age of the Earth.
The main point is that the ages of rock formations are rarely based on a single, isolated age measurement.
On the contrary, radiometric ages are verified whenever possible and practical, and are evaluated by considering other relevant data.
There are a number of long-lived radioactive isotopes used in radiometric dating, and a variety of ways they are used to determine the ages of rocks, minerals, and organic materials.
Some of the isotopic parents, end-product daughters, and half-lives involved are listed in Table 1.
The K-Ar clock works primarily on igneous rocks, i.e., those that form from a rock liquid (such as lava and granite) and have simple post-formation histories.
It does not work well on sedimentary rocks because these rocks are composed of debris from older rocks.
The point is that not all methods are applicable to all rocks of all ages.