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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