The nucleus of every radioactive element (such as radium and uranium) spontaneously disintegrates over time, transforming itself into the nucleus of an atom of a different element.
In the process of disintegration, the atom gives off radiation (energy emitted in the form of waves). Each element decays at its own rate, unaffected by external physical conditions.
These include the uranium-thorium method, the potassium-argon method, and the rubidium-strontium method. Thermoluminescence (pronounced ther-moeloo-mi-NES-ence) dating is very useful for determining the age of pottery.
When a piece of pottery is heated in a laboratory at temperatures more than 930°F (500°C), electrons from quartz and other minerals in the pottery clay emit light.
With sensitive instrumentation, this range can be extended to 70,000 years.
In addition to the radiocarbon dating technique, scientists have developed other dating methods based on the transformation of one element into another.
By measuring the amount of carbon-14 remaining, scientists can pinpoint the exact date of the organism's death.