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A Guide to the Rainbow Bridge

A Guide to the Rainbow Bridge

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Published by Boris Petrovic

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Published by: Boris Petrovic on Aug 21, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Raymond L. Lee, Jr., U. S. Naval AcademyA Field Guide to the Rainbow
The Rainbow Bridge
: Chapter 8What are “all the colors of the rainbow”?Penn State Press(University Park, PA), 2001and SPIE Press (Bellingham, WA)ISBN 0-271-01977-8Co-author: Alistair B. Fraser
 Long before Newton, unusual varieties of rainbows had prompted sporadic scientificinterest. After Newton, these varietal bows raised nagging doubts about the completenessof his answers, and ultimately would lead to powerful new rainbow theories in 19th-century optics. With these theories, we can see that “all the colors of the rainbow” areactually quite different from our preconceptions. Yet for 19th-century artists still debating the validity of Newton’s rainbow colors, these new optical theories clearly were peripheral -- the divorce between the rainbows of interest to them and to scientists was nearlycomplete. Ironically, the 19th century produced some of the strongest claims about theunity of artistic and scientific enterprise, testimony to the rainbow bridge’s tenuous power.
 ... I saw in that part of the Skie, where a Rainbow would naturally be;Something, which was like one, but much broader, fainter, and though colour’d yetindistinct;there was no appearance of Rain, nor do I believe there was any:And indeed the Bow was too much confused to be form’d by spherical drops of water .[1]  Thomas Barker, “A remarkable cloud rainbow” (1739)Although we cannot be certain what kind of bow Thomas Barker saw during the winter of 1739-1740, we can be sure that he did not see a rainbow proper. Our clue (and Barker’s)
is his bow’s “indistinct” colors. As we have seen earlier, two characteristics earn almostany sky feature the name “rainbow” -- it is an arc and colored. While not all colored arcsin the sky are rainbows, Barker is quite right to be skeptical that his “broader, fainter” arcis
a rainbow.What Barker calls a “Frost Rainbow” probably is a
(Fig. 8-1).[2] At first glance, this broad, anemically colored bow looks so different from the rainbow that wemay be forgiven if we side with Barker and believe that it is “too much confused to beform’d by spherical drops of water.” Barker makes the plausible but erroneousassumption that in forming his bow, raindrops have been replaced by “very small round& icy hail.”[3] However, hail is neither clear enough nor symmetric enough to be an adequate substitute for transparent, spherical water drops. In fact, both the rainbow andcloudbow are merely varieties of water-drop bows. In the case of cloudbows, the water drops are those of the clouds themselves.Fig. 8-1: A cloudbow, also known as a fogbow or pilot’s bow, seen from an airplane. The bright light immediately surrounding the airplane shadow is not a cloudbow, but aglory.[4]  As many an inquisitive (and wet) child has discovered, making a rainbow does notrequire that you wait for rain -- a sunlit spray of water drops from a hose will do just fine(Fig. 8-2). So apparently, raindrops are not uniquely qualified to form rainbows (or water-drop bows, more generally). But how do water droplets in clouds yield a bow whoseappearance differs so radically from a bow produced by rain droplets?
Fig. 8-2: A water-drop bow seen in a spray of sunlit drops.
(Photograph courtesy of Michael E. Churma)Surprisingly, explaining the essentially colorless cloudbow also tells us how somecolorful, but subtle, rainbow features arise (Fig. 8-3). In Fig. 8-3, note the narrow pastel bands inside the primary rainbow -- the supernumerary bows. Although reports of the
supernumeraries date from the 13th century, neither Newton’s nor Descartes’ theories of the rainbow can account for them.[5]By mid-18th century, increasingly frequentaccounts of the supernumeraries and cloudbow provoked scientific interest (andconsternation), ultimately leading to new theories of the rainbow.
Fig. 8-3: Supernumerary rainbows inside a primary rainbow at Kootenay Lake,British Columbia, 12 July 1979.
 Neither the cloudbow nor the supernumeraries have contributed much to the rainbow’scultural symbolism. After all, they roil the simple rainbow image considerably, and thefact that their scientific explanation was even more abstruse than Newton’s made themrelatively uninteresting to most lay audiences. By the 19th century, artistic interest inrainbow optics usually lagged behind the science itself (the cases of John Constable andFrederic Church are typical). Ironically, while some artists’ interest in rainbow sciencereached its zenith, scientific study of the rainbow had already moved far beyond mostartists’ scientific expertise. Given this increasingly tenuous rainbow bridge betweenscience and art, our story of cloudbows and supernumeraries is primarily a scientific one. Nonetheless, it is a story with great rewards for even the most casual rainbow observer.
Cloudbows: The “Circle of Ulloa”
In 1748, Spanish explorers Jorge Juan y Santacila (1713-1773) and Antonio de Ulloa(1716-1795) gave an account of glories and a cloudbow that Juan’s party had seen fromMount Pambamarca in present-day Ecuador (Fig. 8-4).[6] Juan and Ulloa were far from the first to write on cloudbows -- Theodoric of Freiberg’s account of cloudbows precededthe Spaniards’ by nearly 450 years, Witelo had mentioned cloudbows even earlier, andAvicenna clearly describes an 11th-century cloudbow. Early documentation, however, didnot mean early explanation. While Theodoric correctly noted that the cloudbow (or fogbow) and the primary rainbow arose in the same way, he offered no convincingexplanation of why their colors differed.[7]Witelo simply accounted for the “completelywhite rainbow” with a combination of thin vapor and clear illumination.[8]  No more  persuasive is Avicenna’s statement that his cloudbow’s diameter shrank because he grewmore distant from the sun as he descended the mountain toward the bow.[9]
Fig. 8-4: Eighteenth-century illustration of a cloudbow and glories seen by Juan’sscientific party. (Lynch and Futterman 1991, Fig. 2) The cloudbow is the large whitearc surrounding the bull’s-eye glory pattern (the relative angular sizes of thecloudbow and glories are at odds with nature and Juan’s accompanying text).
Leonardo da Vinci’s typical meteorological insightfulness is evident when he describesthe cloudbow. In his
Treatise on Painting 
, written a few years before his death in 1519,Leonardo explained why some rainbows are red when the sun is low in the sky. He thenexpanded on the topic, noting that:That redness, together with the other colors [of the rainbow],is of much greater intensity, the more the rain is composed of large drops,

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