Rainbows, a colourful history

Note, this is part one of three as it turned into a rather long post…  Later posts will look at mythology and superstitions around rainbows.

If you follow me on Instagram you may have noticed an abundance of rainbows.  I’m doing a little photo project that was sparked as a result of a gorgeous rainbow selection of tea and a day where I saw multiple rainbows, including one that seemed like we were driving through the base of it – spoiler, there was no gold, no leprechauns, just one Irish carer…

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Anyway, alongside that project, I wanted to find out more about how rainbows feature in cultures and how they have been used symbolically, as well as how our understanding of rainbows has changed over time.

One of the things I love about rainbows is how people still view them with awe and how they can bring smiles to tired faces.

If you want to know more about how rainbows are formed, then the Met Office has some brief, easy to understand information.  One of the things I love is that conditions must be just right for a rainbow to be seen, and that feels very special to me.

  • The sun needs to be behind the viewer
  • The sun needs to be low in the sky, at an angle of less than 42° above the horizon. The lower the sun in the sky the more of an arc of a rainbow the viewer will see
  • Rain, fog or some other source of water droplets must be in front of the viewer

Another aspect of rainbows is that no one can see the same one, even if someone is standing next to you, they will not see the exact rainbow you see.  This combined with the specific conditions necessary to create one makes it feel like seeing a rainbow is a personal gift.

“The rainbow that a cloudspotter sees standing in one position is never the same as that observed from another one.  The droplets that are over in the direction of the arc – perhaps a half to one and a half miles away – each sparkle a bit of sunlight into his eyes.  From the drops that fall through the sky off in some directions, it is the yellow-looking part of the spectrum that twinkles at the cloudspotter.  From those in other directions, it is the violet, etc.  This means that, should the observer change position, different raindrops will be the ones sparkling at him.  Hopefully, this will help cloudspotters accept that it is a futile and, frankly humiliating aspiration to seek the end of a rainbow.”
– The Cloudspotter’s Guide, Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Today we tend to think of rainbows having seven colours, we may remember them through a mnemonic like Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain, but the number is actually arbitrary and has changed over time.  Research suggests that the number of colours seen is about the language that person uses, if a language has fewer colour words then they will see fewer colours.

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As far back as 3rd to 2nd century BCE, people were trying to describe the rainbow but Aristotle was the first to give a complete description and he identified three colours.  The idea of there being three colours was justified in a number of ways including the three stages of events (beginning, middle and end), the three dimensions of space and the use of the number three in the worship of gods.

Later Newton would claim there were five colours, namely red, yellow, green, blue and violet but he would go on to add orange and indigo.  This created a seven colour scale analogous to the notes in a musical scale.  Despite this being the accepted idea today, it was considered heretical at the time.    Newton would also suggest that all of the colours of the rainbow are found in white light, a concept which provides a great metaphor for humanity.

In my next post I’ll be looking at how rainbows feature in mythology.

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