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Fossils are generally found in sedimentary rock — not igneous rock.Sedimentary rocks can be dated using radioactive carbon, but because carbon decays relatively quickly, this only works for rocks younger than about 50 thousand years.

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Over the years, carbon 14 dating has also found applications in geology, hydrology, geophysics, atmospheric science, oceanography, paleoclimatology, and even biomedicine.

American physical chemist Willard Libby led a team of scientists in the post World War II era to develop a method that measures radiocarbon activity.

By dating these surrounding layers, they can figure out the youngest and oldest that the fossil might be; this is known as "bracketing" the age of the sedimentary layer in which the fossils occur.

Teach your students about absolute dating: Determining age of rocks and fossils, a classroom activity for grades 9-12.

So in order to date most older fossils, scientists look for layers of igneous rock or volcanic ash above and below the fossil.

Scientists date igneous rock using elements that are slow to decay, such as uranium and potassium.

When they die, they stop exchanging carbon with the biosphere and their carbon 14 content then starts to decrease at a rate determined by the law of radioactive decay.

Wiens has a Ph D in Physics, with a minor in Geology.

Radioactive elements are unstable; they breakdown spontaneously into more stable atoms over time, a process known as radioactive decay.

Radioactive decay occurs at a constant rate, specific to each radioactive isotope.

The universe is full of naturally occurring radioactive elements.

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