Friday, June 24, 2011

What an idea, Sirji!

In Why Evolution Is True, there is an example of the kind of things I like reading about. It describes a method to verify the age of a fossil that had been previously dated by a radiometric method.
There are yet other ways to check the accuracy of radiometric dating. One of them uses biology, and involved an ingenious study of fossil corals by John Wells of Cornell University. Radioisotope dating showed that these corals lived during the Devonian period, about 380 million years ago. But Wells could also find out when these corals lived simply by looking closely at them. He made use of the fact that the friction produced by tides gradually slows the earth’s rotation over time. Each day - one revolution of the earth - is a tiny bit longer than the last one. Not that you would notice: to be precise, the length of a day increases by about two seconds every 100,000 years. Since the duration of a year – the time it takes the earth to circle the sun — doesn’t change over time, this means that the number of days per year must be decreasing over time. From the known rate of slowing, Wells calculated that when his corals were alive - 380 million years ago if the radiometric dating was correct - each year would have contained about 396 days, each 22 hours long. If there was some way that the fossils themselves could tell how long each day was when they were alive, we could check whether that length matched up with the 22 hours predicted from radiometric dating.

But corals can do this, for as they grow they record in their bodies how many days they experience each year. Living corals produce both daily and annual growth rings. In fossil specimens, we can see how many daily rings separate each annual one: that is, how many days were included in each year when that coral was alive. Knowing the rate of tidal slowing, we can cross check the “tidal” age against the “radiometric “ age. Counting rings in his Devonian corals, Wells found that they experienced about 400 days per year, which means that each day was 21.9 hours long. That’s only a tiny deviation from the predicted 22 hours. This clever biological calibration gives us additional confidence in the accuracy of radiometric dating.
It is so much more interesting than just asking, "Were you there?" You can find out more about a slowing Earth here.

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