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In addition, they have had to develop special techniques with which to dissolve these highly refractory minerals without contaminating the small amount (about one-billionth of a gram) of contained lead and uranium on which the age must be calculated.
Since parent uranium atoms change into daughter atoms with time at a known rate, their relative abundance leads directly to the absolute age of the host mineral.
Similarly, in geologic studies, vast quantities of information from widely spaced outcrops have to be integrated.
Some method of correlating rock units must be found.
Unlike ages derived from fossils, which occur only in sedimentary rocks, absolute ages are obtained from minerals that grow as liquid rock bodies cool at or below the surface.
The same margin of error applies for younger fossiliferous rocks, making absolute dating comparable in precision to that attained using fossils.
To achieve this precision, geochronologists have had to develop the ability to isolate certain high-quality minerals that can be shown to have remained closed to migration of the radioactive parent atoms they contain and the daughter atoms formed by radioactive decay over billions of years of geologic time.
Just as the use of the fossil record has allowed a precise definition of geologic processes in approximately the past 600 million years, absolute ages allow correlations back to Earth’s oldest known rocks formed more than 4 billion years ago.
In fact, even in younger rocks, absolute dating is the only way that the fossil record can be calibrated.