Radioactive decay dating techniques

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Radiometric Dating - A Brief Explanation Radiometric dating is the primary dating scheme employed by scientists to determine the age of the earth. Radiometric dating techniques take advantage of the natural decay of radioisotopes. An isotope is one of two or more atoms which have the same number of protons in their nuclei, but a different number of neutrons. Radioisotopes are unstable isotopes: they spontaneously decay emitting radiation in the process -- thus making them radioactive.
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Radiometric Age Dating - Geology (U.S. National Park Service)

Radiometric dating or radioactive dating is any technique used to date organic and also inorganic materials from a process involving radioactive decay. The method compares the abundance of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope within the material to the abundance of its decay products, which form at a known constant rate of decay. All these methods are based on the fact the rate at which radioactive nuclei disintegrate is unaffected by their environment, it can be used to estimate the age of any material sample or object which contains a radioactive isotope. Calculations of the decay of radioactive nuclei are relatively straightforward, owing to the fact that there is only one fundamental law governing all decay process. The radioactive decay law states that the probability per unit time that a nucleus will decay is a constant, independent of time.
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Radiometric Dating – Radioactive Dating

The belief that radiodating methods give absolute measurements of time is widespread as a result of scientific popularization in journals, conferences, and the media. In fact, due to the difficulties in applying the experimental method to events in the past, all chronometers based on natural or artificial nuclear disintegration need a calibration. This calibration supposes a great number of basic assumptions concerning initial conditions. The choice of these initial conditions affects the results.
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Recent puzzling observations of tiny variations in nuclear decay rates have led some to question the science of using decay rates to determine the relative ages of rocks and organic materials. Scientists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology NIST , working with researchers from Purdue University, the University of Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Wabash College, tested the hypothesis that solar radiation might affect the rate at which radioactive elements decay and found no detectable effect. Atoms of radioactive isotopes are unstable and decay over time by shooting off particles at a fixed rate, transmuting the material into a more stable substance. For instance, half the mass of carbon, an unstable isotope of carbon, will decay into nitrogen over a period of 5, years. The unswerving regularity of this decay allows scientists to determine the age of extremely old organic materials -- such as remains of Paleolithic campfires -- with a fair degree of precision.
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