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It is based on the radioactivity of Ar, however, is an inert gas that escapes easily from rocks when they are heated but is trapped within the crystal structures of many minerals after a rock cools. This correction can be made very accurately and has no appreciable effect on the calculated age unless the atmospheric argon is a very large proportion of the total argon in the analysis.
The geochronologist takes this factor into account when assigning experimental errors to the calculated ages. First, there must be no argon other than that of atmospheric composition trapped in the rock or mineral when it forms.
Second, the rock or mineral must not lose or gain either potassium or argon from the time of its formation to the time of analysis.
By many experiments over the past three decades, geologists have learned which types of rocks and minerals meet these requirements and which do not.
Bishop James Ussher, a 17th-century Irish cleric, for example, calculated that creation occurred in 4004 B. There were many other such estimates, but they invariably resulted in an Earth only a few thousand years old.
Commonly, a radiometric age is checked by other evidence, such as the relative order of rock units as observed in the field, age measurements based on other decay schemes, or ages on several samples from the same rock unit.
By the early 1960s, most of the major radiometric dating techniques now in use had been tested and their general limitations were known.
No technique, of course, is ever completely perfected and refinement continues to this day, but for more than two decades radiometric dating methods have been used to measure reliably the ages of rocks, the Earth, meteorites, and, since 1969, the Moon.
For example, a method based on a parent isotope with a very long half-life, such as C method can only be used to determine the ages of certain types of young organic material and is useless on old granites.
Some methods work only on closed systems, whereas others work on open systems.
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The K-Ar clock works primarily on igneous rocks, i.e., those that form from a rock liquid (such as lava and granite) and have simple post-formation histories.