The result of sunlight being refracted by water particles in the air. The refracted light returns anti-parallel to the original light and due to chromatic aberration is split into a spectrum. The rainbow appears as a circle perpendicular and centered on a line running through the sun and the viewer. Except unusual circumstances (in flight with the sun overhead) the horizon cuts of the bottom of the circle forming the familiar arc.

When I received a telephone call from overseas telling me that my father had died, I was on the twelfth floor of a hotel, thousands of miles away from him. I hung up the telephone, walked to the window and stood looking out at the city. There was a massive rainbow that arced over the building, more vivid than any I have ever seen.

I was sorely tempted to weave its presence into some sort of meaning about my father’s death. Only he and I had an agreement. We both loved a mackerel sky, a sky that looks like the scales of a fish or the scaling of sand on the ocean floor.

So I laughed at the thought that if there was a god, aside from a lot of other issues I could take up with him, he’d got the special effects wrong.

When I was a kid, I used to do puppetry. I'd do birthday parties and also entertained people at arts and craft shows and flea markets while my parents made and sold the puppets to passersby. It was a lot of fun. When time came for us to actually make it into a business so my Mom could do the taxes properly, they asked me what I wanted to call the puppet company. I thought Rainbow Puppets was a neat name, since the puppets I used contained all the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Well I didn't have an indigo colored puppet but you get the idea.

But then when I got into junior high school kids started making fun of me. Puppets were baby toys and the fact my hero Jim Henson managed to make a good living at it was irrelevant. Then I found out that a rainbow was actually a symbol for homosexuality. Needless to say I was a little embarrassed. This mighta worked if I were actually gay, but I'm not so it just made me feel like an idiot. I guess we could have just changed the name of the company, but my Dad already invested money in T-shirts for all of us. By the time I got into high school I was just too busy for it, and my parents eventually dropped it. I still kinda miss it though. It was fun, and for awhile there it looked like I was going to be able to turn it into a career. I wonder what woulda happened if I stuck with it?

In Judeo-Christian mythology, the rainbow was created after God placed down his "Bow of War" after the flood with Adam. It is to symbolize that God promises that he will never again try to destroy the world by water. Although the rainbow is not mentioned in the bible, this is: "I will never again curse the ground on the account of man, for the inclination of man's heart is evil from his youth; I will never again destroy every living creature, as I have done. As long as the earth shall last, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease."

    Genesis 8:22

The rainbow is supposedly God's rememberance of that promise.

Common-or-garden rainbows, gorgeous as they are, are by no means the only spectra worth looking out for in the sky. A host of of other beautiful, colourful effects await the attentive, caused by the refraction and diffraction of sunlight by water droplets and ice crystals in the atmosphere. Most people will never see them because they so rarely pay any attention to what's going on above their heads. Here are a few which you're quite likely to spot if you keep an eye out, and you'll be glad if you do:

Rainbows are caused by light bouncing once off the insides of raindrops; the colours occur because different colours (wavelengths) of light are refracted by different amounts.

Double Rainbow
Many rainbows have a double on the outside, with the colours the opposite way round from the main bow. This is caused by light bouncing around the inside of water droplets twice. A third bow, caused by light bouncing three times, is easily seen in the lab but almost never in the sky.

Supernumerary Rainbow
Occasionally a rainbow has many extra bands of colour close together on the inside. These supernumerary bows show the interference pattern created by light waves leaving droplets; their visibility depends on how uniformly sized the droplets are.

22º Halo
A coloured ring around the sun, caused by refraction from a cirrostratus.

46º Halo
Like the 22º Halo only bigger, weaker and much rarer.

Sun Dogs
Patches of rainbow at the same elevation as the sun, on top of or just outside the 22º halo depending on how high the sun is in the sky. These are the result of refraction by horizontally-aligned plate-like ice crystals in cirrus clouds. Most of the time they come in pairs, with one either side of the sun.

Circumzenith Arc
A rainbow-arc partway around the zenith of the sky, among the most spectacular of all aerial spectra. These are produced by the same kind of ice crystals as sun dogs, and are therefore likely to occur at around the same time.

A coloured ring pretty close to the sun or moon, caused by diffraction from water droplets in an altostratus or altocumulus layer. Droplets of different sizes give different-sized coronas, so the effect is smeared out if the sizes of the droplets vary too much. Although beautiful and common, the corona around the sun is usually much too bright to look at, which is why most people have never even noticed it. The night-time version, around the moon, is much less interesting thanks to the narrower spread of wavelengths in moonlight and our reduced sensitivity to colours at low light levels.

Warning: Do not try to look for bright colours in the clouds immediately surrounding the sun without proper sunglasses! Even with strong shades, take great care not to look for too long at a time, and block the sun out of your view.

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The Flying Circus of Physics, by Jearl Walker
Weather Watching, by Mary & John Gribbin

I've never seen the green flash, nor the red tide, but I have been inside a rainbow. It's quite something.

I didn't think it was possible to get to the end of the rainbow. Usually, as one moves toward it, it recedes; it's always over the next hill or behind those trees... that's the point, right? That's why the leprechaun's treasure is so elusive...

Well, it was a few years ago, spring, a rainy day in Mathews, Virginia. It was one of those days when the dark clouds and sky serve as a dramatic backdrop for bright areas of sunshine; where random growth by the side of the road looks like technicolor plants from The Wizard of Oz. The road was so wet it was reflecting light. I kept driving through rain showers and then patches of sunshine that had a very misty quality, because of the high humidity. I was watching the rainbow, and was surprised to see that we seemed to be getting closer to it.

We rounded a bend in the road, and suddenly we were inside the rainbow. I could see colors in the water vapor in the air all around us; green and yellow and orange were the clearest, but shades of red, blue, and violet were also visible. It was kind of like looking through a translucent, colored filter, but the effect was (of course) three-dimensional.

The most amazing thing was that the phenomenon lasted--we must have been inside the rainbow for a good three-tenths of a mile.

In 1975, Ritchie Blackmore announced that he was leaving groundbreaking rock group Deep Purple to form a new band from scratch with vocalist Ronnie James Dio, which would be known as Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow. After the first album, the name of the band would soon change simply to Rainbow.

Rainbow's style and lineup changed considerably during its eight years together. They started as an epic heavy metal band, complete with fantasy lyrics, but by 1979, Blackmore wanted to move towards a more mainstream, commercialized, hard rock sound. This upset Dio enough that he left the band to join Black Sabbath.

Unfortunately, efforts to make the band's music more commercialized failed, and sales of 1979's Down to Earth were poor, although later albums were more successful. By 1982, however, the band was unappealing and no longer sounded as fresh and inventive as it had during its heyday, and in 1984, Rainbow broke up.

Members of Rainbow:
Ritchie Blackmore
Ronnie James Dio
Craig Gruber
Gary Driscoll
Mickey Lee Soule
Jimmy Bain
Cozy Powell
Tony Carey
Matt Clark
Bob Daisley
Roger Glover
David Stone

Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow
Rainbow Radio Special
Rainbow Rising
On Stage
Long Live Rock and Roll
Down to Earth
Difficult to Cure
Straight Between the Eyes
Bent Out of Shape
Rainbow Mania


I learned a lot in my physics class, but one of the most important life lessons came from the day we studied rainbows. The unit was optics and we had just learned about refraction and reflection. As other noders have pointed out, rainbows appear when light is refracted in a raindrop and then reflected off of the other surface. To see this amazing phenomenon, one must be at exactly the proper angle with the sun behind his or her head. Finding the correct angle is not hard with millions of raindrops, but since each color requires a specific angle to be seen, placement of the eye does matter. If I see a rainbow standing in the middle of my yard and then move five feet to the left, I may still see a rainbow, but the colors will be coming from a slightly different area to make precisely the correct angle. After understanding this, I learned that both literally and metaphorically, since two people cannot possibly occupy the same space at the same time, everyone sees a different rainbow.

Rain"bow` (?), n. [AS. regenboga, akin to G. regenbogen. See Rain, and Bow anything bent,]

A bow or arch exhibiting, in concentric bands, the several colors of the spectrum, and formed in the part of the hemisphere opposite to the sun by the refraction and reflection of the sun's rays in drops of falling rain.

⇒ Besides the ordinary bow, called also primary rainbow, which is formed by two refractions and one reflection, there is also another often seen exterior to it, called the secondary rainbow, concentric with the first, and separated from it by a small interval. It is formed by two refractions and two reflections, is much fainter than the primary bow, and has its colors arranged in the reverse order from those of the latter.

Lunar rainbow, a fainter arch or rainbow, formed by the moon. -- Marine rainbow, ∨ Sea bow, a similar bow seen in the spray of waves at sea. -- Rainbow trout Zool., a bright-colored trout (Salmoirideus), native of the mountains of California, but now extensively introduced into the Eastern States. Japan, and other countries; -- called also brook trout, mountain trout, and golden trout. -- Rainbow wrasse. Zool. See under Wrasse. -- Supernumerary rainbow, a smaller bow, usually of red and green colors only, sometimes seen within the primary or without the secondary rainbow, and in contact with them.


© Webster 1913.

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