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There are two main applications for radiometric dating.

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Note that, contrary to a popular misconception, carbon dating is not used to date rocks at millions of years old.

Before we get into the details of how radiometric dating methods are used, we need to review some preliminary concepts from chemistry.

The illustration below shows the three isotopes of carbon.

Some isotopes of certain elements are unstable; they can spontaneously change into another kind of atom in a process called “radioactive decay.” Since this process presently happens at a known measured rate, scientists attempt to use it like a “clock” to tell how long ago a rock or fossil formed.

Protons and neutrons make up the center (nucleus) of the atom, and electrons form shells around the nucleus.