Can You Have a Barn Without Uranium?

September 7, 2006 | By | 4 Replies More

I was perusing a back issue of Physics Today, reading an article about events at the Large Hadron Collider, when I noticed the word, “femtobarn”. It was defined as 10-39 sq.cm. or a decimal followed by 38 zeros then a one. This is pretty small.

As a midwesterner, I thought I knew the size of a barn. So I multiplied out the femto (you know, milli-, micro-, nano-, pico-, femto-) to get the quadrillion times larger 10-24sq.cm. This is a barn? I had to Google this, and found a clear article at Stanford defining it for lay-folk.

In brief, physicists in the 1940’s were often discussing the cross-sectional area of the Uranium Nucleus. They thought of calling it the Oppenheimer (too many syllables) or the Bethe (too likely to be heard as Beta). Well, most of the research was being done in the midwest, and slamming protons into this target made them think of tossing tomatoes at a barn. The name “barn” was used in a reviewed article, accepted, and it stuck. Now, why femtobarns as the standard unit? It’s just practical for their purposes, like kilometers or megabytes.

By now, if you’ve read this far, you are probably wondering, “why should we care?” Sure, it’s fun to say “femtobarn”, but what use is it in everyday life?


The point is that the world we live in is made up of so many of these tiny and obscure things that only specialists ever get around to knowing about. Atoms and nuclei are just theories, but these theories are made up of very many observations of small things that all appear to support them. Sure, the Rutherford atomic theory (“plum pudding” model) was overthrown much like the Copernican solar system (circular orbits) was centuries before, but the roots of these theories are still strong.

The trap of arguing faith-based creation with science is that the explanation of science requires understanding, not just acceptance. A Creationist can sway his audience with a quick and apparently reasonable sound bite, but it takes many levels of understanding and explanation to explain to innumerates or science novices what is wrong with (or unreasoned about) the Reasonable Statement.

There is a subtle difference between randomness and chaos. There is a distinct correlation between complexity and disorder. Calculus is based on the understanding that everthing can be defined in terms of smaller things, and that all smaller things add up to bigger things. This must not be as obvious as it sounds, because Creationists won’t see what molecular biology has to do with speciation, or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle with cellular mutation.
Look how long it took to simply describe a measurement unit that is as familiar to nuclear physicist as a kilometer is to the rest of us. But now I need to go mow my half-million yottabarns of lawn.

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Category: Education, Energy, Evolution, History, Language, Religion, Science

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A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    No doubt this is why creationists, and other Christian Fundies, are so hostile toward science: because science has been so destructive to their doctrine. The church said the earth was the center of the universe, and science proved them wrong. The church said the planets move in perfect, circular orbits, and science proved them wrong. The church said disease was caused by supernatural demons, and science proved them wrong. The church said our universe was created in seven days, and science proved them wrong. The church said humans were created in one day, and science proved them wrong. The church said there was a global flood that covered the entire planet, and science proved them wrong. When new discoveries appear that were unknown at the time the Bible was written — the discovery of dinosaur fossils, for example — the Fundie goal is always to bend the facts (to the extent they acknowledge the facts at all) to fit whatever version of scripture they happen to believe, rather than to modify their scriptural interpretation to fit the facts.

    When such backward thinking is applied at the level of national governmental policy, we get the sorts of dysfunctional policies we have seen throughout the Bush Administration: a military invasion based on a superstitious belief in WMDs, an energy policy that denies global warming, a homeland security policy that prioritizes the removal of nail clippers from airplanes above the need to inspect truck-sized shipping containers in ports, etc.

  2. hogiemo says:

    Cool! A new small measurement to use in insult about the President and othe right wing yobbo yappers. (We'll avoid the obvious references).

    "If George W. Bush had the brains to fill a femtobarn, he'd improve his intelligence 100%. "

    "If Rush Limbaugh had the juevos to fill a femtobarn, he'd check himself into prison where he says all drug addicts belong."

    "If Donald Rumsfeld had the integrity to fill a femtobarn, he'd resign, shave his addled pate and become a Buddhist monk and silently pray for the rest of his lives for forgiveness from the souls of those he has killed."

  3. Erika Price says:

    "The trap of arguing faith-based creation with science is that the explanation of science requires understanding, not just acceptance. A Creationist can sway his audience with a quick and apparently reasonable sound bite, but it takes many levels of understanding and explanation to explain to innumerates or science novices what is wrong with (or unreasoned about) the Reasonable Statement."

    Case in point: Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort's Way of the Master Ministries. Their site claims to "prove intelligent design in three minutes without reference to the Bible". Their proof constitutes- entirely- of the fact that "many people who believe in evolution can't explain it and use words like 'maybe', 'something' and 'I don't know everything/I'm not an expert.'"Occam's Razor, slid right across our throats.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Modern creationists have learned a lot about marketing, but still nothing about evolution. Kirk and Ray are perfect examples. Friendly fellows, yes. But they are telling a bald lie when, in their “evolution” lecture, they assert that “All of the experts now agree that Lucy is only the skeleton of a three-foot tall chimpanzee.” Kirk and Ray are thus addressing their lectures to the 30% of this country for whom credibility and truth do not matter.

    They argue that “experts” hem and haw when they explain evolution, but their interview of “experts” shows no experts, only a small group of college undergrads, one who admits that God must have had a role in creation. They ask these “experts” whether man “evolved from apes” (as though human animals are not apes). They ask the students the sex of the first fish that crawled up on the land, as though a single fish evolved into a land animal.

    They complain about the many “gaps” in the fossils, even though a multitude of gaps is proof that the fossil record is actually becoming more complete. After all, if you only had two fossils, you’d only have one gap.  They quote Stephen Jay Gould out of context as part of this argument, making it look like Gould is admitting that paleontologists are hucksters. I’m sure Gould, if he could roll in his grave, would be doing it.

    Why are “men” (I prefer to call them human animals) look and act so much like chimpanzees? It’s simple, Kirk and Ray say. “God simply used a similar blueprint when creating the hands and feet and facial expressions of men and apes.” Hey Kirk and Ray, what kind of blueprint did God use when He created AIDS and the appendix?  What was He smoking when He designed all of those babies with Downs syndrome and when He came up with leukemia?  Or does He just hate us?

    All of this is absurd enough, but their Occam's razor is probably their most absurd assertion. Occam’s razor only applies when you have multiple explanations that are equally valid.  In that situation, you should choose the less complicated formulation. When compared to evolutionary theory, is the Bible an equally valid explanation of the many features of life forms that demand some sort of explanation (common DNA system, similar features and behavior, geographic distribution, temporal progression of forms that build upon each other)? Absolutely not, even when the evolutionists hem and haw.

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