A rainbow is an optical and meteorological phenomenon that is caused by reflection of light in water droplets in the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky. It takes the form of a multicoloured arc.
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 while 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 colours reversed, red facing toward the other one, in both rainbows. This second rainbow is caused by light reflecting twice inside water droplets.
The rainbow is not located at a specific distance, but comes from any water droplets viewed from a certain angle relative to the sun’s rays. Thus, a rainbow is not an object, and cannot be physically approached. Indeed, it is impossible for an observer to see a rainbow from water droplets at any angle other than the customary one of 42 degrees from the direction opposite the sun. Even if an observer sees another observer who seems “under” or “at the end of” a rainbow, the second observer will see a different rainbow—further off—at the same angle as seen by the first observer. A rainbow spans a continuous spectrum of colours. Any distinct bands perceived are an artifact of human colour vision, and no banding of any type is seen in a black-and-white photo of a rainbow, only a smooth gradation of intensity to a maximum, then fading towards the other side. For colours seen by the human eye, the most commonly cited and remembered sequence is Newton’s sevenfold red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.12
Rainbows can be caused by many forms of airborne water. These include not only rain, but also mist, spray, and airborne dew.
Rainbows can be observed whenever there are water drops in the air and sunlight shining from behind at a low altitude angle. The most spectacular rainbow displays happen when half the sky is still dark with raining clouds and the observer is at a spot with clear sky in the direction of the sun. The result is a luminous rainbow that contrasts with the darkened background.
The rainbow effect is also commonly seen near waterfalls or fountains. In addition, the effect can be artificially created by dispersing water droplets into the air during a sunny day. Rarely, a moonbow, lunar rainbow or nighttime rainbow, can be seen on strongly moonlit nights. As human visual perception for colour is poor in low light, moonbows are often perceived to be white.3 It is difficult to photograph the complete semicircle of a rainbow in one frame, as this would require an angle of view of 84°. For a 35 mm camera, a lens with a focal length of 19 mm or less wide-angle lens would be required. Now that powerful software for stitching several images into a panorama is available, images of the entire arc and even secondary arcs can be created fairly easily from a series of overlapping frames. From an aeroplane, one has the opportunity to see the whole circle of the rainbow, with the plane’s shadow in the centre. This phenomenon can be confused with the glory, but a glory is usually much smaller, covering only 5–20°.
At good visibility conditions (for example, a dark cloud behind the rainbow), the second arc can be seen, with inverse order of colours. At the background of the blue sky, the second arc is barely visible.
As is evident by the photos on this page, the sky inside of a primary rainbow is brighter than the sky outside of the bow. This is because each raindrop is a sphere and it scatters light in a many-layered stack of colored discs over an entire circular disc in the sky, but only the edge of the disc, which is colored, is what is called a rainbow. Alistair Fraser, coauthor of The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in Art, Myth, and Science, explains: “Each colour has a slightly different sized disc and since they overlap except for the edge, the overlapping colors give white, which brightens the sky on the inside of the circle. On the edge, however, the different-sized colored discs don’t overlap and display their respective colors — a rainbow arc.” Read more