reperiendi

Simple activity for teaching about radiometric dating

Posted in General physics, Quantum by Mike Stay on 2010 May 3

This works best with small groups of about 5-10 students and at least thirty dice. Divide the dice evenly among the students.

  1. Count the number of dice held by the students and write it on the board.
  2. Have everyone roll each die once.
  3. Collect all the dice that show a ‘one’, count them, write the sum on the board, then set them aside.
  4. Go back to step 1.

A run with 30 dice will look something like this:

dice number of ones
30 5
25 4
21 4
17 3
14 1
13 3
10 2
8 1
7 1
6 0
6 1
5 0
5 1
4 1
3 0
3 0
3 0
3 1
2 1
1 0
1 0
1 0
1 0
1 1

Point out how the number of dice rolling a one on each turn is about one sixth of the dice that hadn’t yet rolled a one on the previous turn. Also, that you lose about half of the remaining dice after about four turns.

Send someone out of the room; do either four or eight turns, then bring them back and ask them to guess how many turns the group took. The student should be able to see that if half the dice are left, there were only four turns, but if a quarter of the dice are left, there were eight turns.

If the students are advanced enough to use logarithms, try the above with some number other than four or eight and have the student use logarithms to calculate the number of turns:

turns = log(number remaining/total) / log(5/6),

or, equivalently, in terms of the half-life (which is really closer to 3.8 than 4):

turns = 3.8 * log(number remaining/total) / log(1/2).

When Zircon crystals form, they strongly reject lead atoms: new zircon crystals have no lead in them. They easily accept uranium atoms. Each die represents a uranium atom, and rolling a one represents decaying into a lead atom: because uranium atoms are radioactive, they can lose bits of their nucleus and turn into lead–but only randomly, like rolling a die. Instead of four turns, the half-life of U238 is 4.5 billion years.

Zircon forms in almost all rocks and is hard to break down. So to judge the age of a rock, you get the zircon out, throw it in a mass spectrometer, look at the proportion of uranium to (lead plus uranium) and calculate

years = 4.5 billion * log(mass of uranium/mass of (lead+uranium)) / log(1/2).

Problem: given a zircon crystal where there’s one lead atom for every ninety-nine uranium atoms, how long ago was it formed?

4.5 billion * log(99/100) / log(1/2) = 65 million years ago.

In reality, it’s slightly more complicated: there are two isotopes of uranium and several of lead. But this is a good thing, since we know the half-lives of both isotopes and can use them to cross-check each other; it’s as though each student had both six- and twenty-sided dice, and the student guessing the number of turns could use information from both groups to refine her guess.

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