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Geologists use those radioactive isotopes to date volcanic ash or granite formations like the giant Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

Yes, radioactive isotopes present in rocks and other ancient material decay atom by atom at a steady rate, much as clocks tick time away.

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Create a model of radioactive decay using dice and test its predictive power on dating the age of a hypothetical rock or artifact. That is what we encounter in our daily lives, right?

The Earth orbits the Sun in about one year's time, the Earth rotates on its axis every 24 hours, 60 ticks of the second hand on a clock indicates 1 minute has passed.

Geologists have a much harder job keeping track of time.

Studying the Earth and its evolution, they work with time scales of thousands to billions of years.

Where can they find a clock to measure these huge time periods?

Or on a slightly smaller scale, where can paleontologists find a clock to tell the age of fossils, or how can archeologists determine how old ancient pottery and buried artifacts are? They are mostly empty space with a denser tiny area called the nucleus and a cloud of electrons surrounding the nucleus.

Geologists (along with paleontologists, archeologists, and anthropologists) actually turn to the elements for answers to their geological time questions. The nucleus itself is made of protons and neutrons, collectively called nucleons.

Figure 1 provides a visual representation of an atom.

The number of protons within an atom's nucleus is called the atomic number. The atomic number is important for locating an element on the periodic table, shown in Figure 2.

You might have seen the periodic table in your science textbook or displayed on a poster in the classroom. In the periodic table, each entry represents an element.

The element is listed by its atomic symbol, a one-, two- or three-letter long label. Above the atomic symbol, each entry lists the element's atomic number; e.g., the element gold (Au) has an atomic number of 79.

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