A rainbow is an optical phenomenon that can occur under certain meteorological conditions. It is caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in an effect similar to a spectrum of light appearing in the sky. It takes the form of a multicoloured circular arc. Rainbows caused by sunlight always appear in the section of sky directly opposite the Sun.
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 when 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, with red on the inner side of the arc. This is caused by the light being reflected twice on the inside of the droplet before leaving it.
Rainbows span a continuous spectrum of colours. Any distinct bands perceived are an artefact 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 Isaac Newton's sevenfold red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet,[a] remembered by the mnemonic Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain, or as the name of a fictional person (Roy G. Biv). The initialism is sometimes referred to in reverse order, as VIBGYOR. More modernly, the rainbow is often divided into red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue and violet.
Rainbows can be observed whenever there are water drops in the air and sunlight shining from behind the observer at a low altitude angle. Because of this, rainbows are usually seen in the western sky during the morning and in the eastern sky during the early evening. 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. During such good visibility conditions, the larger but fainter secondary rainbow is often visible. It appears about 10 outside of the primary rainbow, with inverse order of colours.
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.
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 wide-angle lens with a focal length of 19 mm or less would be required. Now that 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.
The sky inside a primary rainbow is brighter than the sky outside of the bow. This is because each raindrop is a sphere and it scatters light over an entire circular disc in the sky. The radius of the disc depends on the wavelength of light, with red light being scattered over a larger angle than blue light. Over most of the disc, scattered light at all wavelengths overlaps, resulting in white light which brightens the sky. At the edge, the wavelength dependence of the scattering gives rise to the rainbow.
The colour pattern of a rainbow is different from a spectrum, and the colours are less saturated. There is spectral smearing in a rainbow owing to the fact that for any particular wavelength, there is a distribution of exit angles, rather than a single unvarying angle. In addition, a rainbow is a blurred version of the bow obtained from a point source, because the disk diameter of the sun (0.5) cannot be neglected compared to the width of a rainbow (2). Further red of the first supplementary rainbow overlaps the violet of the primary rainbow, so rather than the final colour being a variant of spectral violet, it is actually a purple. The number of colour bands of a rainbow may therefore be different from the number of bands in a spectrum, especially if the droplets are particularly large or small. Therefore, the number of colours of a rainbow is variable. If, however, the word rainbow is used inaccurately to mean spectrum, it is the number of main colours in the spectrum.
The question of whether everyone sees seven colours in a rainbow is related to the idea of linguistic relativity. Suggestions have been made that there is universality in the way that a rainbow is perceived. However, more recent research suggests that the number of distinct colours observed and what these are called depend on the language that one uses, with people whose language has fewer colour words seeing fewer discrete colour bands.
When sunlight encounters a raindrop, part of the light is reflected and the rest enters the raindrop. The light is refracted at the surface of the raindrop. When this light hits the back of the raindrop, some of it is reflected off the back. When the internally reflected light reaches the surface again, once more some is internally reflected and some is refracted as it exits the drop. (The light that reflects off the drop, exits from the back, or continues to bounce around inside the drop after the second encounter with the surface, is not relevant to the formation of the primary rainbow.) The overall effect is that part of the incoming light is reflected back over the range of 0 to 42, with the most intense light at 42. This angle is independent of the size of the drop, but does depend on its refractive index. Seawater has a higher refractive index than rain water, so the radius of a "rainbow" in sea spray is smaller than that of a true rainbow. This is visible to the naked eye by a misalignment of these bows.
The light at the back of the raindrop does not undergo total internal reflection, and some light does emerge from the back. However, light coming out the back of the raindrop does not create a rainbow between the observer and the Sun because spectra emitted from the back of the raindrop do not have a maximum of intensity, as the other visible rainbows do, and thus the colours blend together rather than forming a rainbow.
A secondary rainbow, at a greater angle than the primary rainbow, is often visible. The term double rainbow is used when both the primary and secondary rainbows are visible. In theory, all rainbows are double rainbows, but since the secondary bow is always fainter than the primary, it may be too weak to spot in practice.
The secondary rainbow is fainter than the primary because more light escapes from two reflections compared to one and because the rainbow itself is spread over a greater area of the sky. Each rainbow reflects white light inside its coloured bands, but that is "down" for the primary and "up" for the secondary. The dark area of unlit sky lying between the primary and secondary bows is called Alexander's band, after Alexander of Aphrodisias, who first described it.
Unlike a double rainbow that consists of two separate and concentric rainbow arcs, the very rare twinned rainbow appears as two rainbow arcs that split from a single base. The colours in the second bow, rather than reversing as in a secondary rainbow, appear in the same order as the primary rainbow. A "normal" secondary rainbow may be present as well. Twinned rainbows can look similar to, but should not be confused with supernumerary bands. The two phenomena may be told apart by their difference in colour profile: supernumerary bands consist of subdued pastel hues (mainly pink, purple and green), while the twinned rainbow shows the same spectrum as a regular rainbow.The cause of a twinned rainbow is believed to be the combination of different sizes of water drops falling from the sky. Due to air resistance, raindrops flatten as they fall, and flattening is more prominent in larger water drops. When two rain showers with different-sized raindrops combine, they each produce slightly different rainbows which may combine and form a twinned rainbow.A numerical ray tracing study showed that a twinned rainbow on a photo could be explained by a mixture of 0.40 and 0.45 mm droplets. That small difference in droplet size resulted in a small difference in flattening of the droplet shape, and a large difference in flattening of the rainbow top.
In theory, every rainbow is a circle, but from the ground, usually only its upper half can be seen. Since the rainbow's centre is diametrically opposed to the Sun's position in the sky, more of the circle comes into view as the sun approaches the horizon, meaning that the largest section of the circle normally seen is about 50% during sunset or sunrise. Viewing the rainbow's lower half requires the presence of water droplets below the observer's horizon, as well as sunlight that is able to reach them. These requirements are not usually met when the viewer is at ground level, either because droplets are absent in the required position, or because the sunlight is obstructed by the landscape behind the observer. From a high viewpoint such as a high building or an aircraft, however, the requirements can be met and the full-circle rainbow can be seen. Like a partial rainbow, the circular rainbow can have a secondary bow or supernumerary bows as well. It is possible to produce the full circle when standing on the ground, for example by spraying a water mist from a garden hose while facing away from the sun.
A circular rainbow should not be confused with the glory, which is much smaller in diameter and is created by different optical processes. In the right circumstances, a glory and a (circular) rainbow or fog bow can occur together. Another atmospheric phenomenon that may be mistaken for a "circular rainbow" is the 22 halo, which is caused by ice crystals rather than liquid water droplets, and is located around the Sun (or Moon), not opposite it. 041b061a72