Analyzing and dating geological specimens

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Half-lives of these isotopes and the parent-to-daughter ratio in a given rock sample can be measured, then a relatively simple calculation yields the absolute (radiometric) date at which the parent began to decay, i.e., the age of the rock.

Of the three basic rock types, igneous rocks are most suited for radiometric dating.

Particularly useful are index fossils, geographically widespread fossils that evolved rapidly through time.

Crosscutting Relationships: Relative ages of rocks and events may also be determined using the law of crosscutting relationships, which states that geologic features such as igneous intrusions or faults are younger than the units they cut across.

Some of the isotopes used for this purpose are uranium-238, uranium-235 and potassium-40, each of which has a half-life of more than a million years.

If a geologist claims to be younger than his or her co-worker, that is a relative age.

Inclusions: Inclusions, which are fragments of older rock within a younger igneous rock or coarse-grained sedimentary rock, also facilitate relative dating.

Inclusions are useful at contacts with igneous rock bodies where magma moving upward through the crust has dislodged and engulfed pieces of the older surrounding rock.

For example, shells, wood, and other material found in the shoreline deposits of Utah’s prehistoric Lake Bonneville have yielded absolute dates using this method.

These distinct shorelines also make excellent relative dating tools.

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