The universe is full of naturally occurring radioactive elements.Radioactive atoms are inherently unstable; over time, radioactive "parent atoms" decay into stable "daughter atoms." When molten rock cools, forming what are called igneous rocks, radioactive atoms are trapped inside. By measuring the quantity of unstable atoms left in a rock and comparing it to the quantity of stable daughter atoms in the rock, scientists can estimate the amount of time that has passed since that rock formed.The initial ratio has particular importance for studying the chemical evolution of the Earth's mantle and crust, as we discussed in the section on igneous rocks. If this happens, then the date obtained will be older than the date at which the magma erupted.For example lavas dated by K-Ar that are historic in age, usually show 1 to 2 my old ages due to trapped Ar.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.
If a zircon crystal originally crystallizes from a magma and remains a closed system (no loss or gain of U or Pb) from the time of crystallization to the present, then the Discordant dates will not fall on the Concordia curve.Radioactive elements "decay" (that is, change into other elements) by "half lives." If a half life is equal to one year, then one half of the radioactive element will have decayed in the first year after the mineral was formed; one half of the remainder will decay in the next year (leaving one-fourth remaining), and so forth.The formula for the fraction remaining is one-half raised to the power given by the number of years divided by the half-life (in other words raised to a power equal to the number of half-lives).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.
Another possible scenario involves U leakage, again possibly as a result of a metamorphic event.