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Another piece was crushed and the various mineral crystals were carefully separated out.3 The ‘whole rock’ rock powder and four mineral concentrates were submitted for potassium-argon analysis to Geochron Laboratories of Cambridge, MA—a high-quality, professional radioisotope-dating laboratory. A correct answer would have been ‘zero argon’ indicating that the sample was too young to date by this method.

The Mount St Helens lava dome gives us the opportunity to check these assumptions, because we know it formed just a handful of years ago, between 19.It is based on the fact that potassium-40 (an isotope or ‘variety’ of the element potassium) spontaneously ‘decays’ into argon-40 (an isotope of the element argon).2 This process proceeds very slowly at a known rate, having a half-life for potassium-40 of 1.3 billion years.1 In other words, 1.0 g of potassium-40 would, in 1.3 billion years, theoretically decay to the point that only 0.5 g was left.Contrary to what is generally believed, it is not just a matter of measuring the amount of potassium-40 and argon-40 in a volcanic rock sample of unknown age, and calculating a date.Unfortunately, before that can be done, we need to know the history of the rock.For example, we need to know how much ‘daughter’ was present in the rock when it formed.

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