Rainbow Science Essay

This essay has a total of 2100 words and 8 pages.

Rainbow Science



"Rainbows…the Mythology and the Magic"



A rainbow can be classified as an extraordinary and attractive natural phenomenon that has
fascinated humans throughout the ages. There have been numerous observations of rainbows
and many different definitions passed out through the cultures. Descriptions such as " A
rainbow is seven colors in the sky. It is a phenomenon which makes its appearance when it
is raining at the same time when the sun is shining." (Irwin, 32) have been transmitted
verbally through cultures. There are many different aspects to a rainbow; from the
technical issues such as the refraction of light, to the mythology which includes the
Irish stories of leprechauns. All of these combine to make the rainbow one of the most
significantly symbolic shapes of the ages.

The science behind the rainbow is very simple. A rainbow is simply an arc of concentric
colored bands that develops when sunlight interacts with raindrops. Sunlight is refracted
as it enters a raindrop, which causes the different wavelengths of visible light to
separate. Longer wavelengths of light such as red are bent the least while shorter
wavelengths of violet and blue are bent the most. ( Parkhurst, 58)

Much can also be said about the angles of the sun as it hits the different raindrops. If
the angle between the refracted light and the normal (which forms a perpendicular angle to
the surface) if the drop of the surface is greater then the critical angle, about 48
degrees, then the light will reflect off the back of the raindrop. If the angle is smaller
then 48 degrees then the light will simply pass on through. The reflected light is
refracted as it exits the raindrop. This means that the light does not exit at the same
angle as it entered. Violet light, which bends the most, emerges at an angle of 40 degrees
relative to the incoming sunlight while red light, which bends the least, exits the drop
at an angle of 42 degrees. The other 5 colors, orange, yellow, green, blue and indigo,
will leave the raindrop at angles in between. Usually, a rainbow will be seen when rain is
falling in one part of the sky and the sun is shining in the other. For the rainbow to be
visible, the sun must be behind the observer, who is in effect, facing the rain. Since
only one color of light is observed from each raindrop, an incredible number of raindrops
is required to produce the magnificent spectrum of colors that are characteristic of a
rainbow. (Kemp, 102)

The etymology of the word rainbow is very diverse. Its connection with rain and heaven is
very apparent in almost every culture. Balto-Finnic languages such as the Finnish,
Ingrian and Karelian use the word sateenkaari , which places the emphasis on rain. This
emphasis continues into the Germanic languages as well: German Regenbogen, Swedish
regnbage, Old Norse regnbogi, and Danish regnbue. Also very widespread is the connection
with heaven. This is apparent in the French language which uses the word arc-en-ciel. In
Latin there are many different expressions denoting the rainbow: arcus pluvius 'rainbow',
arcus caelestis 'bow of the heaven or gods', arcus coloratus ' colored bow'. (Shweizer,
60)

In the Bible the rainbow is referred to in both the New and Old Testaments, both in fairly
similar contexts. The most well known rainbow is found in the Old Testament where the
rainbow is a sign of the covenant between God and Noah. Genesis 9:13 reads: "I do set my
bow in the cloud; and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth." The
common interpretation of this rainbow is ambiguous and denotes God's wrath and mercy. The
New Testament takes a comparable approach to the rainbow when the Book of Revelations 4:3
reads "And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a
rainbow round about the throne, in sight unto an emerald." This is also a symbol of the
covenant between God and his followers. However, in the Bible there is no found reference
to the colors of the rainbow nor the number of them. Since the ancient Gothic times,
rainbows have been depicted in art. Paintings which contain apocalyptic motifs use the
rainbow as a halo surrounding the body of God or a saint. In Gothic art such as Maiestas
Domini, Christ is depicted as sitting on the rainbow in the midst of the Final Judgement.
(Kemp, 138)

The mythology and mystery that has been designated to the rainbow in different cultures is
one of the most varied in the whole world of nature. Many natural phenomenons are
characterized as symbolic, however they are usually consistent. For example, in every
civilization, fire is looked on as a form of destruction. The meaning of the rainbow is
incredibly diverse from culture to culture. Generally speaking it is looked at for its
beauty as a source of positive emotions and a gladdening of the heart. The widespread
image of the rainbow is a bow, with which God sends down arrows and rain. But taken
further, the rainbow was considered to be someone's belt or robe. In the Albanian culture
the rainbow is the belt of the goddess of beauty, and a later Catholic Saint Prenne (or
Prende), whose name is derived from the word perendi meaning 'heaven'. Swallows were
harnessed to her carriage and pulled her through the gates of heaven. (Irwin, 145)

The Greek mythology also attributes the rainbow to a goddess. Iris was the daughter of
Thaumas and Electra, the sister of Harpies and a messenger of the gods of Olympus. She is
represented as both the goddess of the rainbow and its impersonation. The rainbow has been
said to be the belt of Iris, a footpath between heaven and earth, or the stairway from
which Iris descended to deliver messages to the mortals. Ironically, the original meaning
of the word iris is 'path or band'. (Schweizer, 173)

Some cultures have shown us that the rainbow is not as innocent and beautiful as it
appears. Throughout Australia a serpent has been used as a simile of the rainbow. This
theory is also seen in tribes of Africa and civilizations in Brazil. It is an important
figure in rites of initiation and rainmaking, carrying often a dangerous and destructive
character. The rainbow is said to be the cause of draughts in those parts of the world.
Continues for 4 more pages >>




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