Some critics, particularly religious fundamentalists, argue that neither fossils nor dating can be trusted, and that their interpretations are better. Other critics, perhaps more familiar with the data, question certain aspects of the quality of the fossil record and of its dating. These skeptics do not provide scientific evidence for their views. Current understanding of the history of life is probably close to the truth because it is based on repeated and careful testing and consideration of data. The rejection of the validity of fossils and of dating by religious fundamentalists creates a problem for them:.
Fossil sequences were recognized and established in their broad outlines long before Charles Darwin had even thought of evolution.
Early geologists, in the s and s, noticed how fossils seemed to occur in sequences: The first work was done in England and France. Then, geologists began to build up the stratigraphic column, the familiar listing of divisions of geological time — Jurassic, Cretaceous, Tertiary, and so on. Each time unit was characterized by particular fossils. The scheme worked all round the world, without fail.
From the s onwards, geologists noted how fossils became more complex through time. The oldest rocks contained no fossils, then came simple sea creatures, then more complex ones like fishes, then came life on land, then reptiles, then mammals, and finally humans. Since , paleontologists, or fossil experts, have searched the world for fossils. In the past years they have not found any fossils that Darwin would not have expected. Darwin and his contemporaries could never have imagined the improvements in resolution of stratigraphy that have come since , nor guessed what fossils were to be found in the southern continents, nor predicted the huge increase in the number of amateur and professional paleontologists worldwide.
All these labors have not led to a single unexpected finding such as a human fossil from the time of the dinosaurs, or a Jurassic dinosaur in the same rocks as Silurian trilobites. Paleontologists now apply sophisticated mathematical techniques to assess the relative quality of particular fossil successions, as well as the entire fossil record.
Dating Fossils – How Are Fossils Dated?
These demonstrate that, of course, we do not know everything and clearly never will , but we know enough. Today, innovative techniques provide further confirmation and understanding of the history of life. Biologists actually have at their disposal several independent ways of looking at the history of life - not only from the order of fossils in the rocks, but also through phylogenetic trees. Phylogenetic trees are the family trees of particular groups of plants or animals, showing how all the species relate to each other. Phylogenetic trees are drawn up mathematically, using lists of morphological external form or molecular gene sequence characters.
Modern phylogenetic trees have no input from stratigraphy, so they can be used in a broad way to make comparisons between tree shape and stratigraphy. The majority of test cases show good agreement, so the fossil record tells the same story as the molecules enclosed in living organisms.
Dating rocks and fossils
Dating in geology may be relative or absolute. Relative dating is done by observing fossils, as described above, and recording which fossil is younger, which is older. The discovery of means for absolute dating in the early s was a huge advance. The methods are all based on radioactive decay:. The first radiometric dates, generated about , showed that the Earth was hundreds of millions, or billions, of years old. Since then, geologists have made many tens of thousands of radiometric age determinations, and they have refined the earlier estimates.
Age estimates can be cross-tested by using different isotope pairs. Results from different techniques, often measured in rival labs, continually confirm each other. Every few years, new geologic time scales are published, providing the latest dates for major time lines. Students not only want to know how old a fossil is, but they want to know how that age was determined.
Some very straightforward principles are used to determine the age of fossils.
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- Relative Dating.
- Accuracy of Fossils and Dating Methods!
- PURPOSE AND OBJECTIVES.
Students should be able to understand the principles and have that as a background so that age determinations by paleontologists and geologists don't seem like black magic. This activity consists of several parts. Objectives of this activity are: A single watch or clock for the entire class will do.
Return to top PART 1: After students have decided how to establish the relative age of each rock unit, they should list them under the block, from most recent at the top of the list to oldest at the bottom. The teacher should tell the students that there are two basic principles used by geologists to determine the sequence of ages of rocks. Younger sedimentary rocks are deposited on top of older sedimentary rocks. Principle of cross-cutting relations: Any geologic feature is younger than anything else that it cuts across.
For example, U is an unstable isotope of uranium that has 92 protons and neutrons in the nucl eus of each atom.
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- MATERIALS REQUIRED FOR EACH GROUP;
Through a series of changes within the nucleus, it emits several particles, ending up with 82 protons and neutrons. This is a stable condition, and there are no more changes in the atomic nucleus. A nucleus with that number of protons is called lead chemical symbol Pb. The protons 82 and neutrons total This particular form isotope of lead is called Pb U is the parent isotope of Pb, which is the daughter isotope.
Many rocks contain small amounts of unstable isotopes and the daughter isotopes into which they decay. Where the amounts of parent and daughter isotopes can be accurately measured, the ratio can be used to determine how old the rock is, as shown in the following activities.
That chance of decay is very small, but it is always present and it never changes. In other words, the nuclei do not "wear out" or get "tired". If the nucleus has not yet decayed, there is always that same, slight chance that it will change in the near future. Atomic nuclei are held together by an attraction between the large nuclear particles protons and neutrons that is known as the "strong nuclear force", which must exceed the electrostatic repulsion between the protons within the nucleus. In general, with the exception of the single proton that constitutes the nucleus of the most abundant isotope of hydrogen, the number of neutrons must at least equal the number of protons in an atomic nucleus, because electrostatic repulsion prohibits denser packing of protons.
But if there are too many neutrons, the nucleus is potentially unstable and decay may be triggered.
This happens at any time when addition of the fleeting "weak nuclear force" to the ever-present electrostatic repulsion exceeds the binding energy required to hold the nucleus together. In other words, during million years, half the U atoms that existed at the beginning of that time will decay to Pb This is known as the half life of U- Many elements have some isotopes that are unstable, essentially because they have too many neutrons to be balanced by the number of protons in the nucleus.
Each of these unstable isotopes has its own characteristic half life. Some half lives are several billion years long, and others are as short as a ten-thousandth of a second. On a piece of notebook paper, each piece should be placed with the printed M facing down. This represents the parent isotope. The candy should be poured into a container large enough for them to bounce around freely, it should be shaken thoroughly, then poured back onto the paper so that it is spread out instead of making a pile.
This first time of shaking represents one half life, and all those pieces of candy that have the printed M facing up represent a change to the daughter isotope. Then, count the number of pieces of candy left with the M facing down. These are the parent isotope that did not change during the first half life. The teacher should have each team report how many pieces of parent isotope remain, and the first row of the decay table Figure 2 should be filled in and the average number calculated.
The same procedure of shaking, counting the "survivors", and filling in the next row on the decay table should be done seven or eight more times.
DETERMINING AGE OF ROCKS AND FOSSILS
Each time represents a half life. Each team should plot on a graph Figure 3 the number of pieces of candy remaining after each of their "shakes" and connect each successive point on the graph with a light line. AND, on the same graph, each group should plot points where, after each "shake" the starting number is divided by exactly two and connect these points by a differently colored line.
After the graphs are plotted, the teacher should guide the class into thinking about: