Because argon is an inert gas, it is not possible that it might have been in the mineral when it was first formed from molten magma.
Any argon present in a mineral containing potassium-40 must have been formed as the result of radioactive decay.
By "age" we mean the elapsed time from when the mineral specimen was formed.
The ratio of calcium formed to argon formed is fixed and known.
Therefore the amount of argon formed provides a direct measurement of the amount of potassium-40 present in the specimen when it was originally formed.
At the same time, the fraction of strontium-87 increases from zero and approaches 100% with increasing number of half-lives.
The two curves cross each other at half life = 1.00.
We designate a specific group of atoms by using the term "nuclide." A nuclide refers to a group of atoms with specified atomic number and mass number.
Potassium-Argon dating: The element potassium (symbol K) has three nuclides, K39, K40, and K41. K40 can decay in two different ways: it can break down into either calcium or argon.
If three different strontium-containing minerals form at the same time in the same magma, each strontium containing mineral will have the same ratios of the different strontium nuclides, since all strontium nuclides behave the same chemically.
(Note that this does not mean that the ratios are the same everywhere on earth.
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Therefore the relative amounts of rubidium-87 and strontium-87 can be determined by expressing their ratios to strontium-86: Rb-87/Sr-86 and Sr87/Sr-86 We measure the amounts of rubidium-87 and strontium-87 as ratios to an unchanging content of strontium-86.