Written by: Paul Taylor

Few things in creation are as beautiful or wonderful as a rainbow. It is a scientific phenomenon that can be expressed in terms of numbers associated with frequencies and wavelengths of light, and it is also an artistic object, enjoyed because of its beauty.

The Science of the Rainbow

The rainbow is based on some basic principles of physics. Isaac Newton’s famous experiment on white light utilized a clear prism—a Toblerone-shaped piece of glass or Plexiglas. White light is shone into the prism at such an angle that it bends towards the normal (vertical). On emergence from the prism, the light bends away from the new normal, but, because they are set at a triangle shape, this merely increases the bending, such that there is an actual observable difference between this bending (or refraction) for light of differing frequencies.

How light is ‘split’ by a prism.

Because violet light has the greatest frequency, and hence the shortest wavelength, of visible light, it is bent to a greater angle than red light, at the opposite end of the visible spectrum. The trouble with scientific statements like these is that they sound cold, but the effect of these different refractions for different frequencies is stunningly beautiful.

Have you noticed how rainbows are always opposite the sun? If you are facing the rainbow, then the sun is behind you. A similar refraction happens with spherical raindrops, but in this case, because the internal angles of the light rays are greater than the critical angle of water, the rays undergo total internal reflection before they are refracted again as they leave the water drop….


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