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The Science Behind Rainbows

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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At DivineCaroline.com, women come together to learn from experts in the fields, of health, sustainability, and culture; to reflect on shared experiences; and to express themselves by writing and publishing stories about anything that matters to them. Here, real women publish like real pros. Together, with our staff writers, they’re discussing all facets of women’s lives from relationships and careers, to travel and healthy living. So come discover, read, learn, laugh and connect at DivineCaroline.com.

66 comments

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5:50AM PST on Dec 14, 2012

Thank you Samantha, for Sharing this!

9:32PM PST on Nov 20, 2012

Simply magical...

7:46PM PST on Nov 19, 2012

thanks....

1:49AM PST on Nov 19, 2012

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

6:07AM PST on Nov 15, 2012

Beautifully written and explained - thanks!

5:57PM PST on Nov 14, 2012

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

6:21AM PST on Nov 12, 2012

One of the many beauties and wonders of mother nature.

1:00AM PST on Nov 12, 2012

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

8:33PM PST on Nov 11, 2012

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!!!"..so 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!!

7:53PM PST on Nov 11, 2012

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

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

people are talking

Some interesting ideas!

Informative. Thank you for posting.

Interesting article. Thank you for caring and sharing

Good info, thank you

I'm still hoping for a cold winter when I can wear a few layers to keep warm.

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