The Science Behind Rainbows

There it was, arching over the sky in front of me, a gash of color through a gray, rainy afternoon. I had been walking home from a job I hated, depressed about my prospects for the future, and the rainbow was exactly the mood lifter I needed. I think it’s technically impossible to be sad before such spontaneous color and beauty. There’s no wonder that the rainbow has been a symbol for a number of revolutionary movements in history, from the German Peasant’s War in the 16th century to the establishment of the LGBT community in the 1970s. It’s a sign of hope for a new day.

Every culture seems to have its own myth about how rainbows are formed. The ancient Greeks considered them paths between Earth and Heaven made by the messenger goddess, Iris. The Chinese, Hindus, and Celts all had their own lore about rainbows as well. The phenomena are mentioned in the Judeo-Christian Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh. But what is the scientific explanation for them?

Despite rainbows’ miraculous appearance, the science behind them is actually basic optics, the principles of which were discovered by Isaac Newton in the 17th century and developed by Thomas Young in the early 19th century.

The Bending of Light

Rainbows are formed whenever sunlight shining from behind an observer on the ground is refracted through water droplets in the air. Refraction is considered the “bending” of light, but can be more accurately described as the process of light changing speed as it moves through different densities.

Imagine that you’re swimming through a pool of water. Now imagine that water turning into mineral oil. You’ll be swimming slower, since the thickness of the oil will be more difficult to move through. And when that mineral oil turns to strawberry Jell-O, you’ll be moving even slower.

Light does exactly the same thing as it moves through various mediums. It must change its frequency, or speed, depending on whether it is traveling through air, water, or glass. Different colors have different frequencies, which is why a beam of white light separates into its component colors as it moves through a prism. In the sky, water droplets after a rainfall act as a prism for sunlight, breaking it into the component colors of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

There are as many mnemonic devices to remember the order of these colors as there are people who love rainbows. You may have learned one of the following in elementary school: ROY G. BIV, Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain, or (my favorite) Rainbows Over Your Grass Bring Instant Victory.

The Wide World of Rainbows

Just as light has many variations in appearance, so do rainbows.

They aren’t objective phenomena. In other words, because the perception of refracted light depends on the angle of the observer, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly where a rainbow appears. And the rainbow itself is only the beginning. There are double rainbows that result from light reflecting within the raindrop and exiting at a different angle, so that it appears higher than the original arc. Because a double rainbow is really a reflection of the first, you’ll notice that it appears fainter and with reversed color order. Triple and quadruple rainbows exist, but are very rare.

Rainbows also vary in size and shape depending on the density of the water droplets. Because seawater has a higher density than rain water—this is why it’s easier to float in the ocean—and a higher refractive index, the rainbows that appear in sea spray are smaller than “true” rainbows that appear after a storm. Rainbows that are reflected below the horizon over a body of water are simply called “reflected rainbows.”

Supernumerary rainbows are several faint rainbows on the inner side of the main rainbow. They are slighting detached and their color bands do not fit the usual pattern. Their existence was the first indication of light’s wave nature rather than the particle theory adopted after Newton.

Unweaving the Rainbow

Keats lamented the scientific deconstruction of the rainbow, but even understanding the science behind it does not take away from the beauty and wonder of this natural occurrence. I like the idea that a rainbow is personal; no two people can view it exactly the same way at the same time. Someone standing next to you will also see a rainbow, but the colors and intensity will differ slightly. That rainbow I saw walking home from work, as well as the future it encouraged me to pursue, are all mine.

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Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra2 years ago

Thank you Samantha, for Sharing this!

Stella Gamboni
Stella Gamboni3 years ago

Simply magical...

Franco Di Palma
Franco Di Palma3 years ago


Syera N.
Syera N.3 years ago

Every time I see rainbow in the sky, I'm so excited and enjoy that rare moment. Rainbow is breathtakingly beautiful.

Jeannette Gravett

Beautifully written and explained - thanks!

Theodore S.
Theodore Shayne3 years ago

I once saw a double rainbow that intersected each other to form an "M" pattern. That's the real golden arches.

Elsie Hovav
Elsie Hovav3 years ago

One of the many beauties and wonders of mother nature.

Summerannie Moon
Summerannie M.3 years ago

Rainbows are awesome like the magically awesome one I wished for and while driving, i sensed I should look out the car window and across the blackest ever sky i have ever seen in my life was this perfectly striped rainbow, Not muted, not hazy, but complete stripes that stood out on their own showing each colour as though it was like a liquorice allsort. Amazing. never have seen one since and maybe no one has seen what I saw. Truly breathtakingly beautiful

Shelly Peterson
Shelly Peterson3 years ago

Lynda!!! I am a past Worthy Advisor for the International Order of the Rainbow for Girls,... I hold a "Grand Cross of Colors" for outstanding Community Service, the highest honor We can receive during our service..I was also DeMolay Sweetheart..I was qualifiyed to be Jobs Daughter, ( grand Father, retired 33 degree Mason),, but chose Rainbow, because of what our Order was accomplishing in our community for Charity!!...The Faith, Hope, Charity and Wisdom of putting ALL of Humanity and the Earth first.....why humans really exist..we were taught and accept the responsability of being "Stewards of the Earth and Humanity!!!" We pray, act, vote, petition, give thanks..and do it again the next day!!!!..for all of Life on Planet Earth!!...that is why Rainbows are so important to us!!

Dave C.
Dave C.3 years ago

rainbows are awesome......both the physical beauty and the science...and the fascinating interest societies world-wide have placed in them......