Others measure the subatomic particles that are emitted as an isotope decays.
Some measure the decay of isotopes more indirectly.
Sedimentary rock is made of particles derived from other rocks, so measuring isotopes would date the original rock material, not the sediments they have ended up in.
However, there are radiometric dating methods that can be used on sedimentary rock, including luminescence dating.
For example, the decay of potassium-40 to argon-40 is used to date rocks older than 20,000 years, and the decay of uranium-238 to lead-206 is used for rocks older than 1 million years.
Radiocarbon dating measures radioactive isotopes in once-living organic material instead of rock, using the decay of carbon-14 to nitrogen-14.
Geologists often need to know the age of material that they find.
They use absolute dating methods, sometimes called numerical dating, to give rocks an actual date, or date range, in number of years.
These use radioactive minerals in rocks as geological clocks.
This transformation is accomplished by the emission of particles such as electrons (known as beta decay) or alpha particles.
While the moment in time at which a particular nucleus decays is random, a collection of atoms of a radioactive nuclide decays exponentially at a rate described by a parameter known as the half-life, usually given in units of years when discussing dating techniques.
The table below shows characteristics of some common radiometric dating methods.
Geologists choose a dating method that suits the materials available in their rocks. Measuring isotopes is particularly useful for dating igneous and some metamorphic rock, but not sedimentary rock.