To date a radioactive rock, geologists first measure the “sand grains” in the top glass bowl (the parent radioisotope, such as uranium-238 or potassium-40).
They also measure the sand grains in the bottom bowl (the daughter isotope, such as lead-206 or argon-40, respectively).
Yet this view is based on a misunderstanding of how radiometric dating works.
Radioactive rocks offer a similar “clock.” Radioactive atoms, such as uranium (the parent isotopes), decay into stable atoms, such as lead (the daughter isotopes), at a measurable rate.
Because of such contamination, the less than 50-year-old lava flows at Mt.
Ngauruhoe, New Zealand (), yield a rubidium-strontium “age” of 133 million years, a samarium-neodymium “age” of 197 million years, and a uranium-lead “age” of 3.908 billion years!
6 The problems with contamination, as with inheritance, are already well-documented in the textbooks on radioactive dating of rocks.7 Unlike the hourglass, where its two bowls are sealed, the radioactive “clock” in rocks is open to contamination by gain or loss of parent or daughter isotopes because of waters flowing in the ground from rainfall and from the molten rocks beneath volcanoes.
Similarly, as molten lava rises through a conduit from deep inside the earth to be erupted through a volcano, pieces of the conduit wallrocks and their isotopes can mix into the lava and contaminate it.