Radiometric Dating: Clair Patterson (1 of 2)

Nineteenth century geologists recognized that rocks formed slowly as mountains eroded and sediments settled on the ocean floor. But they could not say just how long such processes had taken, and thus how old their fossils were. Darwin had argued that the Earth was immensely old—which gave his gradual process of evolution plenty of time to unfold. The great physicist Lord Kelvin had countered that the planet was actually relatively young—perhaps 20 million years old. He came up with that figure by estimating how long it had taken for the planet to cool down to its current temperature from its molten infancy. But Kelvin didn’t, and couldn’t, know that radioactive atoms such as uranium were breaking down and keeping the planet warmer than it would be otherwise.

An Older Earth
At the dawn of the twentieth century, physicists made a revolutionary discovery: elements are not eternal. Atoms can fuse together to create new elements; they can also spontaneously break down, firing off subatomic particles and switching from one element to another in the process (see figure, right). While some physicists used these discoveries for applications ranging from nuclear weapons to nuclear medicine, others applied them to understanding the natural world. The sun was once thought to burn like a coal fire, but physicists showed that it actually generates energy by slamming atoms together and creating new elements. The primordial cloud of dust that came to form the Earth contained unstable atoms, known as radioactive isotopes. Since its birth, these isotopes have been breaking down and releasing energy that adds heat to the planet’s interior.

A decaying atom 
	  emits particles and energy
Radioactive elements decay, releasing particles and energy.

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Spanish translation of Understanding Evolution For Teachers from the Spanish Society of Evolutionary Biology.