Segment from A Science Odyssey: "Origins."Geologists have calculated the age of Earth at 4.6 billion years.But for humans whose life span rarely reaches more than 100 years, how can we be so sure of that ancient date? Even the Greeks and Romans realized that layers of sediment in rock signified old age.There's a small amount of radioactive carbon-14 in all living organisms.When they die no new carbon-14 is taken in by the dead organism.The parent isotope is the original unstable isotope, and daughter isotopes are the stable product of the decay. In the first 5,730 years, the organism will lose half of its C-14 isotopes.Half-life is the amount of time it takes for half of the parent isotopes to decay. In another 5,730 years, the organism will lose another half of the remaining C-14 isotopes.
Geologist Ralph Harvey and historian Mott Greene explain the principles of radiometric dating and its application in determining the age of Earth.After all, the ever-changing Earth rarely left a complete geological record.Many rocks and organisms contain radioactive isotopes, such as U-235 and C-14.For example, in 1991, two hikers discovered a mummified man, preserved for centuries in the ice on an alpine mountain.
Later called Ötzi the Iceman, small samples from his body were carbon dated by scientists.But it wasn't until the late 1700s -- when Scottish geologist James Hutton, who observed sediments building up on the landscape, set out to show that rocks were time clocks -- that serious scientific interest in geological age began.