Just the facts



The rainbow is a meteorological phenomenon that is caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky. It takes the form of a multi-coloured arc. Rainbows caused by sunlight always appear in the section of sky directly opposite the sun. A rainbow can be a full circle; however, the average observer sees only an arc formed by illuminated droplets above the ground, and centred on a line from the sun to the observer’s eye.

A rainbow is not located at a specific distance from the observer, but comes from an optical illusion caused by any water droplets viewed from a certain angle relative to a light source. 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 light source. 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—farther off—at the same angle as seen by the first observer.

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 Newton’s sevenfold red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, remembered by the mnemonic, Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain (ROYGBIV). Rainbows can be caused by many forms of airborne water. These include not only rain, but also mist, spray, and airborne dew. The first rainbow was as a result of God’s vow to Noah and his family in Biblical times, after the whole earth had been flooded: “I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Genesis 9:13-16).

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