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The carbon-14 it contained at the time of death decays over a long period of time.

By measuring the amount of carbon-14 left in dead organic material the approximate time since it died can be worked out.

Others place mineral grains under a special microscope, firing a laser beam at the grains which ionises the mineral and releases the isotopes.

The isotopes are then measured within the same machine by an attached mass spectrometer (an example of this is SIMS analysis).

Argon-Argon dating (39Ar-40Ar) This technique developed in the late 1960s but came into vogue in the early 1980s, through step-wise release of the isotopes.

This technique uses the same minerals and rocks as for K-Ar dating but restricts measurements to the argon isotopic system which is not so affected by metamorphic and alteration events. The decay of 147Sm to 143Nd for dating rocks began in the mid-1970s and was widespread by the early 1980s.

All rely on the fact that certain elements (particularly uranium and potassium) contain a number of different isotopes whose half-life is exactly known and therefore the relative concentrations of these isotopes within a rock or mineral can measure the age.

Some techniques place the sample in a nuclear reactor first to excite the isotopes present, then measure these isotopes using a mass spectrometer (such as in the argon-argon scheme).

This method faces problems because the cosmic ray flux has changed over time, but a calibration factor is applied to take this into account.

Radiocarbon dating is normally suitable for organic materials less than 50 000 years old because beyond that time the amount of 14C becomes too small to be accurately measured.

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.

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