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Many rocks and organisms contain radioactive isotopes, such as U and C These radioactive isotopes are unstable, decaying over time at a predictable rate. As the isotopes decay, they give off particles from their nucleus and become a different isotope. The parent isotope is the original unstable isotope, and daughter isotopes are the stable product of the decay. Half-life is the amount of time it takes for half of the parent isotopes to decay. The decay occurs on a logarithmic scale. For example, the half-life of C is 5, years.
Comparisons between the observed abundance of certain naturally occurring radioactive isotopes and their decay products, using known decay rates, can be used to measure timescales ranging from before the birth of the Earth to the present. For example measuring the ratio of stable and radioactive isotopes in meteorites can give us information on their history and provenance. Radiometric dating techiques were pioneered by Bertram Boltwood in , when he was the first to establish the age of rocks by measuring the decay products of the uranium to lead. Carbon is the basic building block of organic compounds and is therefore an essential part of life on earth. Natural carbon contains two stable isotopes 12 C Radiocarbon dating was developed in the s, with Willard Libby receiving the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the use of 14 C to determine age in archaeology, geology, geophysics and many other branches of science. For many years it was assumed that the content of 14 C in the atmosphere was constant.