What does Science Tell Us About Rainbows?

“A rainbow is a meteorological phenomenon that is caused by reflection, refraction, and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky. It takes the form of a multicolored arc. Rainbows caused by sunlight always appear in the section of sky directly opposite the sun.

Rainbows can be full circles. However, the observer normally sees only an arc formed by illuminated droplets above the ground and centered on a line from the sun to the observer’s eye.

In a primary rainbow, the arc shows red on the outer part and violet on the inner side. This rainbow is caused by light being refracted when entering a droplet of water, then reflected inside on the back of the droplet and refracted again when leaving it.

In a double rainbow, a second arc is seen outside the primary arc and has the order of its colors reversed, with red on the inner side of the arc. This is caused by the light being reflected twice on the inside of the droplet before exiting it.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainbow

“The traditional description of the rainbow is that it is made up of seven colors – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Actually, the rainbow is a whole continuum of colors from red to violet and even beyond the colors that the eye can see.

The colors of the rainbow arise from two basic facts:

  • Sunlight is made up of the whole range of colors that the eye can detect. The range of sunlight colors, when combined, looks white to the eye. This property of sunlight was first demonstrated by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666.
  • Light of different colors is refracted by different amounts when it passes from one medium (air, for example) into another (water or glass, for example).

Descartes and Willebrord Snell had determined how a ray of light is bent, or refracted, as it traverses regions of different densities, such as air and water. When the light paths through a raindrop are traced for red and blue light, one finds that the angle of deviation is different for the two colors because blue light is bent or refracted more than is the red light.  This implies that when we see a rainbow and its band of colors we are looking at light refracted and reflected from different raindrops, some viewed at an angle of 42 degrees; some, at an angle of 40 degrees, and some in between.” https://eo.ucar.edu/rainbows/

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