It is impossible not to stop in your tracks when you come across a rainbow. A magnificent testament of nature’s beauty, it comes as a surprise to know that the archetypal colours are little more than an optical illusion concocted by nature. Caused by the dispersion of sunlight in the skin by rain, the appearance of a rainbow today stands as a symbol of the blooming of hope after a stormy day.
The history of rainbows
The word ‘rainbow’ hails from the Latin term ‘arcus pluvius’, which translates into a rainy arch. However, the seven colours of the rainbow that are recognised today were discovered over the course of centuries. While Greek poet Homer was convinced that rainbows consisted of a single colour, purple, another philosopher discovered another two: yellow-green and red. This theory of three-coloured rainbows earned the support of famed philosopher Aristotle.
During the Renaissance period, red was added to the mix and by the time the 17th century rolled around, Western thinkers had added blue to the ballot. It was in the year 1637 that French philosopher René Descartes discovered how rainbows were actually formed: when the rays of light from the sun were split into separate colours by rainwater droplets. Finally, in the year 1666, Isaac Newton discovered indigo and orange, giving us the seven colours that we recognise today.
How rainbows are formed
The science of it isn’t as complicated as it sounds, but awe-inspiring nonetheless. It helps to think of each droplet of rainwater as a unique mirror. The Telegraph describes the phenomenon as, “When the sun is right behind you its light passes through the raindrops in front of you, reflects off their rear surface and bounces back at you. The light is refracted or “bent” slightly as it passes from the air into the water; and again as it bounces back into the air again. The different wavelengths that combine to make daylight are “bent” by different amounts. Each raindrop acts as both prism (refraction) and mirror (reflection).”
Fun facts about rainbows you’ll wish you’d known sooner
The wonders of nature never cease to amaze and boggle the mind. It is up to us to ensure that we preserve its beauty for years to come. Are you in?