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After estimating the rate of this radioactive change, he calculated that the absolute ages of his specimens ranged from 410 million to 2.2 billion years. Wasserburg applied the mass spectrometer to the study of geochronology.Though his figures were too high by about 20 percent, their order of magnitude was enough to dispose of the short scale of geologic time proposed by Lord Kelvin. This device separates the different isotopes of the same element and can measure the variations in these isotopic abundances to within one part in 10,000.These experiments are carried out at elevated temperatures and pressures that simulate those operating in different levels of the Earth’s crust.Thus the metamorphic petrologist today can compare the minerals and mineral assemblages found in natural rocks with comparable examples produced in the laboratory, the pressure–temperature limits of which have been well defined by experimental petrology. Bridgman developed a technique for subjecting rock samples to high pressures similar to those deep in the Earth.For example, the XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence) spectrometer can quantify the major and trace element abundances of many chemical elements in a rock sample down to parts-per-million concentrations.This geochemical method has been used to differentiate successive stages of igneous rocks in the plate-tectonic cycle.Bertram Boltwood suggested that lead is one of the disintegration products of uranium, in which case the older a uranium-bearing mineral the greater should be its proportional part of lead.Analyzing specimens whose relative geologic ages were known, Boltwood found that the ratio of lead to uranium did indeed increase with age.
Microscopic fossils, such as ostracods, foraminifera, and pollen grains, are common in sediments of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras (from about 251 million years ago to the present).
Also, by extrapolating backward in time to a situation when there was no lead that had been produced by radiogenic processes, a figure of about 4.6 billion years is obtained for the minimum age of the Earth.
This figure is of the same order as ages obtained for certain meteorites and lunar rocks.
The SHRIMP (Sensitive High Resolution Ion Microprobe) enables the accurate determination of the uranium-lead age of the mineral zircon, and this has revolutionized the understanding of the isotopic age of formation of zircon-bearing igneous granitic rocks.
Another technological development is the ICP-MS (Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer), which is able to provide the isotopic age of the minerals zircon, titanite, rutile, and monazite.