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Some nuclides have very long half-lives, measured in billions or even trillions of years.Others have extremely short half-lives, measured in tenths or hundredths of a second.Since all atoms of the same element have the same number of protons, different nuclides of an element differ in the number of neutrons they contain.For example, hydrogen-1 and hydrogen-2 are both nuclides of the element hydrogen, but hydrogen-1's nucleus contains only a proton, while hydrogen-2's nucleus contains a proton and a neutron.Thus, an atom of carbon-14 (C14), atomic number 6, emits a beta particle and becomes an atom of nitrogen-14 (N14), atomic number 7.A third, very rare type of radioactive decay is called electron absorption.The decay rate and therefore the half-life are fixed characteristics of a nuclide. Thats the first axiom of radiometric dating techniques: the half-life of a given nuclide is a constant.
All these methods point to Earth being very, very old -- several billions of years old.Some, however, are unstable -- given time, they will spontaneously undergo one of the several kinds of radioactive decay, changing in the process into another element.There are two common kinds of radioactive decay, alpha decay and beta decay.Thats the essence of radiometric dating: measure the amount thats present, calculate how much is missing, and Obviously, the major question here is "how much of the nuclide was originally present in our sample? If an element has more than one nuclide present, and a mineral forms in a magma melt that includes that element, the elements different nuclides will appear in the mineral in precisely the same ratio that they occurred in the environment where and when the mineral was formed. The third and final axiom is that when an atom undergoes radioactive decay, its internal structure and also its chemical behavior change.Losing or gaining atomic number puts the atom in a different row of the periodic table, and elements in different rows behave in different ways. C14 is radioactive, with a half-life of 5730 years.
The rules are the same in all cases; the assumptions are different for each method.