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Lifestyle

A Rainbow Welcome

What causes double rainbows?

Why is the order of the colors reversed?

January 8, 2008

While on vacation recently our family saw a double rainbow. How do these occur? Why did the second faint rainbow (which was on top of the first) have the opposite color sequence?

Ah, rainbows – those will-o’-the-wisps of ethereal beauty, made possible only by a full lineup of optics phenomena. Let’s run down the list:

1. Refraction. When a ray of sunlight strikes a raindrop, the ray refracts, or bends, at the point where it passes out of the air and into the water of the drop. The angle of the bend is determined by (a) the intrinsic light-transmitting properties of air and water (every transparent substance has its own individual index of refraction) and (b) the angle at which the ray strikes the surface of the spherical droplet – whether, e.g., it hits the drop squarely or strikes a glancing blow off to one side.

2. Dispersion. Meanwhile, the drop is acting as a prism, splitting the white light of the ray into its component colors by refracting the different wavelengths at different angles: red wavelengths bend a certain amount, orange wavelengths a slightly different amount, and so on.

3. Internal reflection. Most of the light striking the raindrop passes straight through it and out the far side, but some of it reflects off the rear interior surface of the drop and is sent in some new direction. The ratio of light transmitted to light reflected is, once again, a function of the angle at which the ray hits the surface.

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