Are you still chasing rainbows? | Sunday Observer

Are you still chasing rainbows?

“Hey! Look at that!”

My 10-year-old friend was pointing his finger towards the sky. What I saw struck me wordless. Beyond the hills bordering our village was a perfect rainbow. There were seven layers of light arching over the hills. The rainbow was so bright that the trees in the distance seemed lit like candles. Unfortunately, the light was not accompanied by any sound. Otherwise we could have listened to a symphony! Within minutes we were basking in the sunlight, after incessant rains fading away.

As children we did not realize how rainbows formed or appeared arching the sky. One thing we understood was that rainbows appeared after a period of gloom and mist. We were too young to record our feelings in a notebook. As adolescents we understood some facts about rainbows. Our teachers were not of much help when it came to rainbows.

They simply said rainbows were nature’s beautiful creations. At least one teacher told us that rainbows would appear as omens of good things to come. Our science teacher explained that when the sun’s rays meet a raindrop, most of the light passes through the centre of it. However, the light that passes through the upper and lower parts is refracted, bending and splitting into its seven component colours producing a rainbow. That was too scientific an explanation, we thought.

Heavenly light

To early Christians and Jews a rainbow was a ray of heavenly light radiating from above. They believed that angels used to sit at the top of the rainbow rolling golden coins down the rays.

From this myth originated the idea that there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In the Bible there is a reference to Noah’s “bow in the cloud” supposed to be a “sign of the covenant” that meant flood waters would never again destroy life. An African-American reference to the flood story says that the birds on the arc were so excited by the sight that they flew through the rainbow. In the process they acquired their brilliant colours.

While scientists explained that raindrops were the source of rainbows, the celebrated French philosopher Rene Descartes said droplets of water bent or refracted the beams of light sending them shooting off in a new direction.

About a century later, Sir Isaac Newton in his book titled “Opticks” explained how one ray of light became seven brilliantly coloured bands when sunlight danced with the rain.

We see the sun as a large white object during rain when the sunlight passes through the centre of the water droplets. However, some of the rays entering through the rain drops’ edges are bent. This gives rise to component colours such as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. These are the seven brilliant colours that adorn the rainbow.

If you delve deep into the scientific explanation of the rainbow, we see it as an arc of light exhibiting the spectrum of colours in their order, caused by drops of water falling through the air.Above the perfect bow is a secondary bow, in which the colours are arranged in the reverse order. It is somewhat dimmer because of the double reflection within the drops. The rainbow is a natural spectrum, produced by meteorological phenomena. A similar effect can be produced by passing sunlight through a glass prism.

Scientific explanation

This was advanced by the English mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton in 1666. However, the term “spectrum” is loosely applied today to any orderly array produced by analysis of a complex phenomenon.

However much we desire them, rainbows do not appear frequently. They usually appear within three hours of sunrise or sunset. Rainbows can form anywhere with falling water and sunlight. You can see the rainbow when the sun is behind you. As such it is a futile exercise to chase rainbows. This makes rainbows all the more precious.

More than scientists, literary men have looked at rainbows in a different way. Instead of trying to explain how rainbows are created, they have left their thoughts in prose and verse. Here is a short poem written by William Wordsworth (1770-1856):

The Rainbow

My heart leaps up when I behold

A Rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of man;

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.

After looking at a beautiful rainbow Coleridge wrote, That gracious thing, made up of tears and light. Byron’s view of the rainbow is somewhat philosophical: Be thou the rainbow to the storms of life. The evening beam that smiles the clouds away, and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.

Colton was so overwhelmed by a rainbow and wrote: That smiling daughter of the storm.

What is more, rainbows have enriched the language. If you say that something is “at the end of the rainbow” or “the pot of gold is at the end of the rainbow,” you mean that although you dream of getting it, in reality it will be very difficult to achieve. If you are “chasing rainbows”, you are wasting your time and energy by trying to get something which you can never have.

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