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They observed that every rock formation, no matter how ancient, appeared to be formed from still older rocks.Comparing these rocks with the products of present erosion, sedimentation, and earth movements, these earliest geologists soon concluded that the time required to form and sculpt the present Earth was immeasurably longer than had previously been thought.It is based on the radioactivity of Ar, however, is an inert gas that escapes easily from rocks when they are heated but is trapped within the crystal structures of many minerals after a rock cools. This correction can be made very accurately and has no appreciable effect on the calculated age unless the atmospheric argon is a very large proportion of the total argon in the analysis.The geochronologist takes this factor into account when assigning experimental errors to the calculated ages. First, there must be no argon other than that of atmospheric composition trapped in the rock or mineral when it forms.
It does not work well on sedimentary rocks because these rocks are composed of debris from older rocks.
The discovery of radioactivity in 1896 by Henri Becquerel, the isolation of radium by Marie Curie shortly thereafter, the discovery of the radioactive decay laws in 1902 by Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy, the discovery of isotopes in 1910 by Soddy, and the development of the quantitative mass spectrograph in 1914 by J. Thomson all formed the foundation of modern isotopic dating methods.
But it was not until the late 1950s that all the pieces were in place; by then the phenomenon of radioactivity was understood, most of the naturally occurring isotopes had been identified and their abundance determined, instrumentation of the necessary sensitivity had been developed, isotopic tracers were available in the required quantities and purity, and the half-lives of the long-lived radioactive isotopes were reasonably well known.
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.