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Each isotope has what is known as a half-lifethat is, a period of time in which half of the atoms in a population decay into stable daughter elements.This half-life differs dramatically from isotope to isotope.And last week scientists announced that new dates for an extinction event that claimed most of Australia's large animals show that humans, not the climate, wiped them out.Although visual inspection of the rocks, fossils and archaeological remains used to reconstruct our planet's past provides critical information, only by ascertaining their ages can researchers put this data into a meaningful context.Carbon 14 can thus reliably date items only up to around 40,000 years old.

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The dating confirmed that the horse does indeed date back 1,000 years to the Tang dynasty, as its style suggests.

ESR can be used to evaluate materials up to one million years old and has become an indispensable tool for paleoanthropologists, who often use it to date the teeth of animal remains found among the precious human fossils.

AMINO ACID RACEMIZATION Over time, the amino acids that make up proteins slowly convert from their so-called left-handed state to their right-handed forma phenomenon known as racemization.

As a result, different isotopes are better suited to dating different items.

In the case of carbon 14, for example, the half life is only 5,730 years.

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