The universe is full of naturally occurring radioactive elements.
Radioactive atoms are inherently unstable; over time, radioactive "parent atoms" decay into stable "daughter atoms." When molten rock cools, forming what are called igneous rocks, radioactive atoms are trapped inside. By measuring the quantity of unstable atoms left in a rock and comparing it to the quantity of stable daughter atoms in the rock, scientists can estimate the amount of time that has passed since that rock formed.
Each isotope is identified with what is called a ‘mass number’.
When ‘parent’ uranium-238 decays, for example, it produces subatomic particles, energy and ‘daughter’ lead-206.
So in order to date most older fossils, scientists look for layers of igneous rock or volcanic ash above and below the fossil.
Scientists date igneous rock using elements that are slow to decay, such as uranium and potassium.
Geologists draw on it and other basic principles ( to determine the relative ages of rocks or features such as faults.
Sedimentary rocks can be dated using radioactive carbon, but because carbon decays relatively quickly, this only works for rocks younger than about 50 thousand years.
Absolute age dating is like saying you are 15 years old and your grandfather is 77 years old.
To determine the relative age of different rocks, geologists start with the assumption that unless something has happened, in a sequence of sedimentary rock layers, the newer rock layers will be on top of older ones. This rule is common sense, but it serves as a powerful reference point.
By dating these surrounding layers, they can figure out the youngest and oldest that the fossil might be; this is known as "bracketing" the age of the sedimentary layer in which the fossils occur.
Teach your students about absolute dating: Determining age of rocks and fossils, a classroom activity for grades 9-12.