Beyond Isoplot: new software for better geochronology.

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Earth Sciences


The development of radiometric geochronology is one of the greatest triumphs of 20th century geoscience. Geochronology underpins the study of Earth history and puts fundamental constraints on the rate of biological evolution. Tremendous resources are invested in the development of sophisticated mass spectrometers capable of measuring isotopic ratios with ever increasing resolution and sensitivity. Unfortunately, the statistical treatment of mass spectrometer data has not kept up with these hardware developments and this undermines the reliability of radiometric geochronology.

This proposal aims to create a 'software revolution' in geochronology, by building an internally consistent ecosystem of computer programs to account for inter-sample error correlations. These have a first order effect on the precision and accuracy of geochronology but are largely ignored by current geochronological data processing protocols. The proposed software will modify existing data reduction platforms and create entirely new ones. It will implement a data exchange format to combine datasets from multiple chronometers together whilst keeping track of the correlated uncertainties between them. The new algorithms will be applied to five important geological problems.

1. The age of the Solar System is presently constrained to 4567.30 +/- 0.16 Ma using primitive meteorites. The meteorite data are 'underdispersed' with respect to the analytical uncertainties. The presence of strong inter-sample error correlations is one likely culprit for this underdispersion. Accounting for these correlations will significantly improve the accuracy and precision of this iconic age estimate.
2. The Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary marks the disappearance of the dinosaurs in the most notorious mass extinction of Earth history. We will re-evaluate the timing of critical events around this boundary using high precision 40Ar/39Ar geochronology. Preliminary results from other samples show that 40Ar/39Ar data are prone to strong (r^2 > 0.9) inter-sample error correlations, and that these have a first order effect on the precision and accuracy of weighted mean age estimates. A sensitivity test indicates that this may change the timing of the mass extinction by up to 200ka.
3. The 'Taung Child' is a famous hominin fossil that was discovered in a South African cave in 1924. It is considered to be the world's first Australopithecine, but has not yet been dated. We have a good unpublished U-Pb age of 1.99 +/- 0.05 Ma from a tufa collected above the hominid, and an imprecise upper age limit of 1.4 +/- 2.7 Ma on a calcrete deposit below it. Applying the new algorithms to the latter date will greatly improve its precision. This will be further improved with additional measurements, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Taung Child's discovery.
4. Depth profiling of the U-Pb ages in rutile and apatite provides an exciting new way to constrain the thermal evolution of lower crustal rocks. However, the laser ablation data used for this research are prone to strong error correlations that are not accounted for by current data reduction protocols. These protocols will be revised using the new software, permitting better resolution of the inferred t-T paths.
(5) Radiogenic noble gases such as 40Ar (from 40K), 4He (from U, Th and Sm), and 129Xe (from 129I) are lost by volume diffusion at high temperatures. The revised regression algorithms implemented by the research programme will be applied to step-heating 'Arrhenius' experiments. This will improve the calculation of diffusion coefficients for these gas species, resulting in further improvement of (noble gas) thermochronology.

Planned Impact

1. Community uptake of the proposed software will be promoted by:
a. The incorporation of existing data reduction packages into the new software ecosystem. This will ensure a seamless transition to rigorous inter-sample error correlation for existing users of those packages.
b. The addition of a series of video tutorials to the online IsoplotR data reduction platform ( These tutorials will not only document IsoplotR, but will also serve as a general introduction to geochronological data processing, similar to the PI's 'virtual petrographic microscope' at and the free lecture notes that he has released at . They will turn IsoplotR into a unique teaching tool.
c. The organisation of a summer school, at UCL, for 50 junior scientists during the final year of the project. This event will cover all aspects of geochronology including sample collection, mineral separation, mass spectrometry and, of course, data processing. It will be taught by the PI and guest lecturers, including some of the Project Partners.

2. The existence of creation myths in many world religions points at a deep and fundamental fascination of all people with the origin of the world. Geochronology represents the scientific answer to this question. It is important that the underlying principles of this discipline are communicated to the general public. The proposal includes a significant budget for science communication that will be used to:
a. Produce a 15-20 min video about geochronology and the geologic time scale, presented by renowned science communicator Prof. Iain Stewart and similar in scope to his 'Anatomy of an Earthquake' video on ;
b. Develop a 'geochron@home' app that will allow citizen scientists to participate in an 'online dating' experiment using the fission track method (;
Description The research has led to the development of new data filtering and age estimation approaches in geochronology.
Exploitation Route The aforementioned data filters represent a crucial data processing step in hundreds of papers per year.
Sectors Education