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What is a rainbow?

Author Donald Ahrens in his text Meteorology Today describes a rainbow as "one of the most spectacular light shows observed on earth". Indeed the traditional rainbow is sunlight spread out into its spectrum of colors and diverted to the eye of the observer by water droplets. The "bow" part of the word describes the fact that the rainbow is a group of nearly circular arcs of color all having a common center.

Where is the sun when you see a rainbow?

This is a good question to start thinking about the physical process that gives rise to a rainbow. Most people have never noticed that the sun is always behind you when you face a rainbow, and that the center of the circular arc of the rainbow is in the direction opposite to that of the sun. The rain, of course, is in the direction of the rainbow.

What makes the bow?

A question like this calls for a proper physical answer. We will discuss the formation of a rainbow by raindrops. It is a problem in optics that was first clearly discussed by Rene Descartes in 1637. An interesting historical account of this is to be found in Carl Boyer's book, The Rainbow From Myth to Mathematics. Descartes simplified the study of the rainbow by reducing it to a study of one water droplet and how it interacts with light falling upon it.

He writes:"Considering that this bow appears not only in the sky, but also in the air near us, whenever there are drops of water illuminated by the sun, as we can see in certain fountains, I readily decided that it arose only from the way in which the rays of light act on these drops and pass from them to our eyes. Further, knowing that the drops are round, as has been formerly proved, and seeing that whether they are larger or smaller, the appearance of the bow is not changed in any way, I had the idea of making a very large one, so that I could examine it better.

Descarte describes how he held up a large sphere in the sunlight and looked at the sunlight reflected in it. He wrote "I found that if the sunlight came, for example, from the part of the sky which is marked AFZ

and my eye was at the point E, when I put the globe in position BCD, its part D appeared all red, and much more brilliant than the rest of it; and that whether I approached it or receded from it, or put it on my right or my left, or even turned it round about my head, provided that the line DE always made an angle of about forty-two degrees with the line EM, which we are to think of as drawn from the center of the sun to the eye, the part D appeared always similarly red; but that as soon as I made this angle DEM even a little larger, the red color disappeared; and if I made the angle a little smaller, the color did not disappear all at once, but divided itself first as if into two parts, less brilliant, and in which I could see yellow, blue, and other colors ... When I examined more particularly, in the globe BCD, what it was which made the part D appear red, I found that it was the rays of the sun which, coming from A to B, bend on entering the water at the point B, and to pass to C, where they are reflected to D, and bending there again as they pass out of the water, proceed to the point ".

This quotation illustrates how the shape of the rainbow is explained. To simplify the analysis, consider the path of a ray of monochromatic light through a single spherical raindrop. Imagine how light is refracted as it enters the raindrop, then how it is reflected by the internal, curved, mirror-like surface of the raindrop, and finally how it is refracted as it emerges from the drop. If we then apply the results for a single raindrop to a whole collection of raindrops in the sky, we can visualize the shape of the bow.

The traditional diagram to illustrate this is shown here as adapted from Humphreys, Physics of the Air. It represents the path of one light ray incident on a water droplet from the direction SA. As the light beam enters the surface of the drop at A, it is bent (refracted) a little and strikes the inside wall of the drop at B, where it is reflected back to C. As it emerges from the drop it is refracted (bent) again into the direction CE. The angle D represents a measure of the deviation of the emergent ray from its original direction. Descartes calculated this deviation for a ray of red light to be about 180 - 42 or 138 degrees.

The ray drawn here is significant because it represents the ray that has the smallest angle of deviation of all the rays incident upon the raindrop. It is called the Descarte or rainbow ray and much of the sunlight as it is refracted and reflected through the raindrop is focused along this ray. Thus the reflected light is diffuse and weaker except near the direction of this rainbow ray. It is this concentration of rays near the minimum deviation that gives rise to the arc of rainbow.

The sun is so far away that we can, to a good approximation, assume that sunlight can be represented by a set of parallel rays all falling on the water globule and being refracted, reflected internally, and refracted again on emergence from the droplet in a manner like the figure. Descartes writes

I took my pen and made an accurate calculation of the paths of the rays which fall on the different points of a globe of water to determine at which angles, after two refractions and one or two reflections they will come to the eye, and I then found that after one reflection and two refractions there are many more rays which can be seen at an angle of from forty-one to forty-two degrees than at any smaller angle; and that there are none which can be seen at a larger angle" (the angle he is referring to is 180 - D).

A typical raindrop is spherical and therefore its effect on sunlight is symmetrical about an axis through the center of the drop and the source of light (in this case the sun). Because of this symmetry, the two-dimensional illustration of the figure serves us well and the complete picture can be visualized by rotating the two dimensional illustration about the axis of symmetry. The symmetry of the focusing effect of each drop is such that whenever we view a raindrop along the line of sight defined by the rainbow ray, we will see a bright spot of reflected/refracted sunlight. Referring to the figure, we see that the rainbow ray for red light makes an angle of 42 degrees between the direction of the incident sunlight and the line of sight. Therefore, as long as the raindrop is viewed along a line of sight that makes this angle with the direction of incident light, we will see a brightening. The rainbow is thus a circle of angular radius 42 degrees, centered on the antisolar point, as shown schematically here.

We don't see a full circle because the earth gets in the way. The lower the sun is to the horizon, the more of the circle we see -right at sunset, we would see a full semicircle of the rainbow with the top of the arch 42 degrees above the horizon. The higher the sun is in the sky, the smaller is the arch of the rainbow above the horizon.

What makes the colors in the 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:

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. This is illustrated in this drawing, adapted from Johnson's Physical Meteorology. This rainbow of two colors would have a width of almost 2 degrees (about four times larger than the angular size as the full moon). Note that even though blue light is refracted more than red light in a single drop, we see the blue light on the inner part of the arc because we are looking along a different line of sight that has a smaller angle (40 degrees) for the blue.

Ana excellent laboratory exercise on the mathematics of rainbows is here, and F. K. Hwang has produced a fine Java Applet illustrating this refraction, and Nigel Greenwood has written a program that operates in MS Excel that illustrates the way the angles change as a function of the sun's angle.

What makes a double rainbow?

Sometimes we see two rainbows at once, what causes this? We have followed the path of a ray of sunlight as it enters and is reflected inside the raindrop. But not all of the energy of the ray escapes the raindrop after it is reflected once. A part of the ray is reflected again and travels along inside the drop to emerge from the drop. The rainbow we normally see is called the primary rainbow and is produced by one internal reflection; the secondary rainbow arises from two internal reflections and the rays exit the drop at an angle of 50 degrees° rather than the 42°degrees for the red primary bow. Blue light emerges at an even larger angle of 53 degrees°. his effect produces a secondary rainbow that has its colors reversed compared to the primary, as illustrated in the drawing, adapted from the Science Universe Series Sight, Light, and Color.

It is possible for light to be reflected more than twice within a raindrop, and one can calculate where the higher order rainbows might be seen; but these are never seen in normal circumstances.

Why is the sky brighter inside a rainbow?

Notice the contrast between the sky inside the arc and outside it. When one studies the refraction of sunlight on a raindrop one finds that there are many rays emerging at angles smaller than the rainbow ray, but essentially no light from single internal reflections at angles greater than this ray. Thus there is a lot of light within the bow, and very little beyond it. Because this light is a mix of all the rainbow colors, it is white. In the case of the secondary rainbow, the rainbow ray is the smallest angle and there are many rays emerging at angles greater than this one. Therefore the two bows combine to define a dark region between them - called Alexander's Dark Band, in honor of Alexander of Aphrodisias who discussed it some 1800 years ago!

What are Supernumerary Arcs?

In some rainbows, faint arcs just inside and near the top of the primary bow can be seen. These are called supernumerary arcs and were explained by Thomas Young in 1804 as arising from the interference of light along certain rays within the drop. Young's work had a profound influence on theories of the physical nature of light and his studies of the rainbow were a fundamental element of this. Young interpreted light in terms of it being a wave of some sort and that when two rays are scattered in the same direction within a raindrop, they may interfere with each other. Depending on how the rays mesh together, the interference can be constructive, in which case the rays produce a brightening, or destructive, in which case there is a reduction in brightness. This phenomenon is clearly described in Nussenzveig's article "The Theory of the Rainbow" in which he writes: "At angles very close to the rainbow angle the two paths through the droplet differ only slightly, and so the two rays interfere constructively. As the angle increases, the two rays follow paths of substantially different lengths. When the difference equals half of the wavelength, the interference is completely destructive; at still greater angles the beams reinforce again. The result is a periodic variation in the intensity of the scattered light, a series of alternately bright and dark bands."

Mikolaj and Pawel Sawicki have posted several beautiful photographs of rainbows showing these arcs.

The "purity" of the colors of the rainbow depends on the size of the raindrops. Large drops (diameters of a few millimeters) give bright rainbows with well defined colors; small droplets (diameters of about 0.01 mm) produce rainbows of overlapping colors that appear nearly white. And remember that the models that predict a rainbow arc all assume spherical shapes for raindrops.

There is never a single size for water drops in rain but a mixture of many sizes and shapes. This results in a composite rainbow. Raindrops generally don't "grow" to radii larger than about 0.5 cm without breaking up because of collisions with other raindrops, although occasionally drops a few millimeters larger in radius have been observed when there are very few drops (and so few collisions between the drops) in a rainstorm. Bill Livingston suggests: " If you are brave enough, look up during a thunder shower at the falling drops. Some may hit your eye (or glasses), but this is not fatal. You will actually see that the drops are distorted and are oscillating."

It is the surface tension of water that moulds raindrops into spherical shapes, if no other forces are acting on them. But as a drop falls in the air, the 'drag' causes a distortion in its shape, making it somewhat flattened. Deviations from a spherical shape have been measured by suspending drops in the air stream of a vertical wind tunnel (Pruppacher and Beard, 1970, and Pruppacher and Pitter, 1971). Small drops of radius less than 140 microns (0.014 cm) remain spherical, but as the size of the drop increases, the flattening becomes noticeable. For drops with a radius near 0.14 cm, the height/width ratio is 0.85. This flattening increases for larger drops.

Spherical drops produce symmetrical rainbows, but rainbows seen when the sun is near the horizon are often observed to be brighter at their sides, the vertical part, than at their top. Alistair Fraser has explained this phenomenon as resulting from the complex mixture of size and shape of the raindrops. The reflection and refraction of light from a flattened water droplet is not symmetrical. For a flattened drop, some of the rainbow ray is lost at top and bottom of the drop. Therefore, we see the rays from these flattened drops only as we view them horizontally; thus the rainbow produced by the large drops is is bright at its base. Near the top of the arc only small spherical drops produce the fainter rainbow.

What does a rainbow look like through dark glasses?

This is a "trick" question because the answer depends on whether or not your glasses are Polaroid. When light is reflected at certain angles it becomes polarized (discussed again quite well in Nussenzveig's article), and it has been found that the rainbow angle is close to that angle of reflection at which incident, unpolarized light (sunlight) is almost completely polarized. So if you look at a rainbow with Polaroid sunglasses and rotate the lenses around the line of sight, part of the rainbow will disappear!

Other Questions about the Rainbow

Humphreys (Physics of the Air, p. 478) discusses several "popular" questions about the rainbow:

What are Reflection Rainbows?

A reflection rainbow is defined as one produced by the reflection of the source of incident light (usually the sun). Photographs of them are perhaps the most impressive of rainbow photographs. The reflected rainbow may be considered as a combination of two rainbows produced by sunlight coming from two different directions - one directly from the sun, the other from the reflected image of the sun. The angles are quite different and therefore the elevation of the rainbow arcs will be correspondingly different. This is illustrated in a diagram adapted from Greenler"s Rainbows, Halos, and Glories. The rainbow produced by sunlight reflected from the water is higher in the sky than is the one produced by direct sunlight.

What is a Lunar Rainbow?

A full moon is bright enough to have its light refracted by raindrops just as is the case for the sun. Moonlight is much fainter, of course, so the lunar rainbow is not nearly as bright as one produced by sunlight. Lunar rainbows have infrequently been observed since the time of Aristotle or before. A graphic description of one was writen by Dr. Mikkelson.

Rainbows and Proverbs

There is a delightful book by Humphreys entitled Weather Proverbs and Paradoxes. In it, he discusses the meteorological justifications of some proverbs associated with rainbows, such as "Rainbow at night, shepherd's delight;Rainbow in morning, shepherds take warning,"If there be a rainbow in the eve,It will rain and leave; But if there be a rainbow in the morrow It will neither lend nor borrow", and Rainbow to windward, foul fall the day; Rainbow to leeward, damp runs away."

The meteorological discussion Humphreys presents is appropriate for the northern temperate zones that have a prevailing wind, and also for a normal diurnal change in the weather.


William Livingston, a solar astronomer who has also specialized in atmospheric optical phenomena suggests the following: "Try a hose spray yourself. As you produce a fine spray supernumeraries up to order three become nicely visible. "Try to estimate the size of these drops compared to a raindrop. ..."Another thing to try. View a water droplet on a leaf close-up - an inch from your eye. At the rainbow angle you may catch a nice bit of color!"

In Minnaert's excellent book Light and Colour in the Open Air you can find a number of experiments on how to study the nature of rainbows. Here is an illustration of one of his suggestions. Other demonstration projects are listed here .

Meg Beal, while a seventh-grader, prepared a science fair project that illustrated the nature of rainbows. The Beal family provided a photograph (1MB) of her excellent demonstration.

For those wanting to try to demonstrate the nature of a rainbow in a classroom, here are examples.

An informative tutorial on optics can be found here.

I am indebted to William C. Livingston, astronomer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson Arizona for his expert assistance in preparing this paper, and to Seth Sharpless for his critical reading of the manuscript. Charles A. Knight, an expert on rain at the National Center for Atmospheric Physics, provided valuable guidance on the interesting properties of raindrops.


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