Rainbows – A scientific history

The classical Greek scholar Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was first to devote serious attention to the rainbow. According to Raymond L. Lee and Alistair B. Fraser, “Despite its many flaws and its appeal to Pythagorean numerology, Aristotle’s qualitative explanation showed an inventiveness and relative consistency that was unmatched for centuries. After Aristotle’s death, much rainbow theory consisted of reaction to his work, although not all of this was uncritical.”

In the Naturales Quaestiones (ca. 65 AD), Seneca devotes a whole book to rainbows, heaping up a number of observations and hypotheses. He notices that rainbows appear always opposite to the sun, that they appear in water sprayed by a rower or even in the water spat by a launderer on dresses; he even speaks of rainbows produced by small rods (virgulae) of glass, anticipating Newton’s experiences with prisms. He takes into account two theories: one, that the rainbow is produced by the sun reflecting in each water-drop, the other, that it is produced by the sun reflected in a cloud shaped like a concave mirror. He favors the latter theory. He observes other phenomena related with rainbows: the mysterious “virgae” (rods) and the parhelia.

The Persian physicist and polymath, Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen; 965–1039), attempted to provide a scientific explanation for the rainbow phenomenon. In his Maqala fi al-Hala wa Qaws Quzah (On the Rainbow and Halo), he “explained the formation of rainbow as an image, which forms at a concave mirror. If the rays of light coming from a farther light source reflect to any point on axis of the concave mirror, they form concentric circles in that point. When it is supposed that the sun as a farther light source, the eye of viewer as a point on the axis of mirror and a cloud as a reflecting surface, then it can be observed the concentric circles are forming on the axis.” He was not able to verify this because his theory that “light from the sun is reflected by a cloud before reaching the eye” did not allow for a possible experimental verification. This explanation was later repeated by Averroes, and, though incorrect, provided the groundwork for the correct explanations later given by Kamāl al-Dīn al-Fārisī (1267–ca. 1319/1320) and Theodoric of Freiberg (c.1250–1310).[16] Ibn al-Haytham supported the Aristotelian views that the rainbow is caused by reflection alone and that its colours are not real like object colours.

A contrast-enhanced photograph of a supernumerary rainbow, with additional green and violet arcs inside the primary bow.

Ibn al-Haytham’s contemporary, the Persian philosopher and polymath Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna; 980–1037), provided an alternative explanation, writing “that the bow is not formed in the dark cloud but rather in the very thin mist lying between the cloud and the sun or observer. The cloud, he thought, serves simply as the background of this thin substance, much as a quicksilver lining is placed upon the rear surface of the glass in a mirror. Ibn Sīnā would change the place not only of the bow, but also of the colour formation, holding the iridescence to be merely a subjective sensation in the eye.” This explanation, however, was also incorrect. Ibn Sīnā’s account accepts many of Aristotle’s arguments on the rainbow.

In Song Dynasty China (960–1279), a polymathic scholar-official named Shen Kuo (1031–1095) hypothesized—as a certain Sun Sikong (1015–1076) did before him—that rainbows were formed by a phenomenon of sunlight encountering droplets of rain in the air. Paul Dong writes that Shen’s explanation of the rainbow as a phenomenon of atmospheric refraction “is basically in accord with modern scientific principles.”

Rainbow after sunlight bursts through after an intense shower in Maraetai, New Zealand.

The Persian astronomer, Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi (1236–1311), gave a fairly accurate explanation for the rainbow phenomenon. This was elaborated on by his student, Kamāl al-Dīn al-Fārisī (1260–1320), who gave a more mathematically satisfactory explanation of the rainbow. He “proposed a model where the ray of light from the sun was refracted twice by a water droplet, one or more reflections occurring between the two refractions.” He verified this through extensive experimentation using a transparent sphere filled with water and a camera obscura. [unreliable source?] As he noted in his Kitab Tanqih al-Manazir (The Revision of the Optics), al-Farisi used a large clear vessel of glass in the shape of a sphere, which was filled with water, in order to have an experimental large-scale model of a rain drop. He then placed this model within a camera obscura that has a controlled aperture for the introduction of light. He projected light unto the sphere and ultimately deduced through several trials and detailed observations of reflections and refractions of light that the colours of the rainbow are phenomena of the decomposition of light. His research had resonances with the studies of his contemporary Theodoric of Freiberg (without any contacts between them; even though they both relied on Aristotle’s and Ibn al-Haytham’s legacy), and later with the experiments of Descartes and Newton in dioptrics (for instance, Newton conducted a similar experiment at Trinity College, though using a prism rather than a sphere).

In Europe, Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics was translated into Latin and studied by Robert Grosseteste. His work on light was continued by Roger Bacon, who wrote in his Opus Majus of 1268 about experiments with light shining through crystals and water droplets showing the colours of the rainbow.[25] In addition, Bacon was the first to calculate the angular size of the rainbow. He stated that the rainbow summit can not appear higher than 42° above the horizon. Theodoric of Freiberg is known to have given an accurate theoretical explanation of both the primary and secondary rainbows in 1307. He explained the primary rainbow, noting that “when sunlight falls on individual drops of moisture, the rays undergo two refractions (upon ingress and egress) and one reflection (at the back of the drop) before transmission into the eye of the observer”. He explained the secondary rainbow through a similar analysis involving two refractions and two reflections.

René Descartes’ sketch of how primary and secondary rainbows are formed

Descartes’ 1637 treatise, Discourse on Method, further advanced this explanation. Knowing that the size of raindrops did not appear to affect the observed rainbow, he experimented with passing rays of light through a large glass sphere filled with water. By measuring the angles that the rays emerged, he concluded that the primary bow was caused by a single internal reflection inside the raindrop and that a secondary bow could be caused by two internal reflections. He supported this conclusion with a derivation of the law of refraction (subsequently to, but independently of, Snell) and correctly calculated the angles for both bows. His explanation of the colours, however, was based on a mechanical version of the traditional theory that colours were produced by a modification of white light.

Isaac Newton demonstrated that white light was composed of the light of all the colours of the rainbow, which a glass prism could separate into the full spectrum of colours, rejecting the theory that the colours were produced by a modification of white light. He also showed that red light is refracted less than blue light, which led to the first scientific explanation of the major features of the rainbow. Newton’s corpuscular theory of light was unable to explain supernumerary rainbows, and a satisfactory explanation was not found until Thomas Young realised that light behaves as a wave under certain conditions, and can interfere with itself.

Young’s work was refined in the 1820s by George Biddell Airy, who explained the dependence of the strength of the colours of the rainbow on the size of the water droplets. Modern physical descriptions of the rainbow are based on Mie scattering, work published by Gustav Mie in 1908. Advances in computational methods and optical theory continue to lead to a fuller understanding of rainbows. For example, Nussenzveig provides a modern overview.

Inspired by Phil Krause – via Rainbow

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