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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.

Find additional lessons, activities, videos, and articles that focus on relative and absolute dating.

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The number associated with an isotope is its atomic mass (i.e., protons plus neutrons).

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Those that decay are called radioactive (or parent) isotopes; those that are generated by decay are called radiogenic (or daughter) isotopes.

" Another way of explaining it is that when geologists talk about isotopes, they are talking about one element of differing masses.

Isotopes of an element are atoms that all have the same atomic number (or number of protons in the nucleus) but have different atomic masses (hence different numbers of neutrons in the nucleus).

Often students get bogged down in the fact that they don't "understand" how and why radioactive elements decay and miss the whole point of this exercise.

If they can begin to comprehend that it is random and spontaneous, they end up feeling less nervous about the whole thing.

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