Posted in Science & Nature


Rainbows have been associated with wonder and the heavens throughout the history of humanity. The Norse believed that the rainbow bridge, Bifröst, connects the realms of men and gods. The rainbow is mentioned in the Bible as a sign from God to signify to Noah that the flood had ended. Irish leprechauns are said to hide their pots of gold at the end of a rainbow. It is now adopted as a symbol for LGBT movements, symbolising diversity.

The massive scale and brilliant colours of a rainbow is awe-inspiring (famously captured in the Double Rainbow video). We now know that it is the result of sunlight interacting with water droplets: reflecting, refracting and dispersing.

Sunlight refracts (bends) as it enters the droplet. It then reflects off the inside wall of the droplet and refracts once more as it exits. Because each wavelength refracts slightly differently, light disperses and each colour can be seen separately, much like a prism breaking apart white light into colours.

Because of water’s refractive index being constant, the returning light is most intense at 42°, making the rainbow always form in a circle with an angular radius (angle of light compared to your eyes where a circle is seen as a specific diameter) of 42° surrounding the point opposite the sun. If you are standing exactly at this spot with the sun behind you, you will see a beautiful rainbow. Otherwise, the rainbow disappears.

Angular radius can sound like a complicated concept, but in this case, it results in something quite interesting. To capture a full rainbow with a camera, your camera lens must have a field of view (cone of light that the camera will photograph) of 84°. Most smartphone cameras have smaller fields of view than this (iPhone X has a 65° horizontal field of view for instance), meaning that it would be impossible to capture all of the rainbow in one photo.

Another impossible thing when it comes to rainbows is finding the mythical pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Because rainbows are the result of optics, they are different to every observer and how they are positioned to the sun and water droplets. This means that no two people observe a rainbow in the same way and a rainbow is not static.

You can also never approach the rainbow as it will disappear given the angular radius mentioned above.

Furthermore, there is no end to a rainbow because it is actually a full circle that extends through the horizon. We cannot see it as there is ground between us and the rainbow, but you can sometimes see a ring rainbow from a plane.

However, because the rainbow is technically just light from the sun bouncing off water and into your eyes, we can imagine it not as a circle, but a double-ended cone that ends in your eyes. By this logic, your retinas that sense the rainbow (and by extension, you) are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The End of the Rainbow
(Image source:


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