supernumeraries date from the 13th century, neither Newton’s nor Descartes’ theories of the rainbow can account for them.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). 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.Witelo simply accounted for the “completelywhite rainbow” with a combination of thin vapor and clear illumination. 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.
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,