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2: The Science Past and Present of Evolution in .NET
2: The Science Past and Present of Evolution
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determines the type of atom Hydrogen, for example, has one electron and one proton Sometimes, it also has a neutron The term heavy water refers to water in which each hydrogen atom has a neutron This isotope of hydrogen is also called deuterium Some isotopes, like deuterium, are stable, which means that they re perfectly happy with the number of electrons, protons, and neutrons they have Other isotopes are unstable because the different number of neutrons interacts with the other atomic components in such a way that some of the bits go flying off and, over a period of time, the isotope changes into some other atom When these unstable isotopes change to a different atom, they emit radioactivity For that reason, they re called radioisotopes An important property of radioactive isotopes is that scientists can describe very accurately the average probability of the transition s happening and express that probability as a number called the half-life the time it takes for half of the atoms to undergo this transition In the first half-life, half of the atoms transition In the second half-life, half of the remaining atoms transition, leaving one quarter of the original parent material In the third half-life, half again transition, leaving one eighth, and so on (Remember: Just because half the isotopes decay in the first half-life doesn t mean that the other half decay in the second half-life you d be surprised at the number of students who make this assumption Only half decay every half-life) To determine the age of material, researchers compare the ratio of the parent and daughter products that were initially in the sample with the ratio of these products at the current time By doing so, they can calculate how much time has passed The atomic clock is a very accurate national timekeeping apparatus calibrated by the precise regularity of radioactive decay
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Numerous radioactive isotopes exist One system that has been very successful in dating the ages of fossils is potassium-argon dating Potassium is an extremely common element Although most potassium isotopes aren t radioactive, one of them is, and one of its decay products is the gas argon Potassium argon dating relies on the fact that although potassium is a solid, argon is a gas When rock is melted (think lava), all the argon in the rock escapes, and when the rock solidifies again, only potassium is left The melting of the rock and releasing of any argon present set the potassium argon clock at zero As time passes, argon accumulates in the rock as a result of radioactive potassium decay When scientists analyze these rocks and compute the ratio of argon to potassium, they re able to determine how long it s been since the lava cooled When scientists date rocks from our solar system this way, the oldest dates they find are 45 billion years No fossils are present in lava, obviously; anything that was there melted along with the rock But by dating the lava flows above and below a fossil find, scientists can put exact boundaries on the maximum and minimum age of that fossil In this case, the variation in possible ages of the fossil simply reflects the fact that the fossil exists between the dated lava flows Radioactive dating has been perfected to the extent that scientists can get within a few percentage points of the actual date They know this because they re able to date lava flows that happened recently enough for their dates to be known historically Potassium argon dating has been used to date accurately the age of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius at Pompeii, for example The scientists knew that the technique worked because the age their equipment indicated matched the age noted in historical Roman records
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