barn, abbr. b, in physics, unit of nuclear cross section, i.e., the effective target presented by a nucleus for collisions leading to nuclear reactions; it is equal to 10 - 24 square centimeters. The barn is approximately the size of the geometric cross section of an atomic nucleus; the term was coined because an effective cross section that large would present a target "as big as a barn," i.e., an easy target for nuclear bombardment. In practice, effective cross sections of nuclei for many reactions are measured in millibarns (10 - 3 barn) because, for most interactions, only a small fraction of collisions cause reactions.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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