I have a very simple question.

Everyone must have seen the rainbow after rain. According to the theory the rainbow is created due to the passing of sunlight from small drops of water in the atmosphere(means by dispersion of light).

Now my what I want to know is that after rain the rain drops are present in the entire atmosphere. So the whole atmosphere should look colorful. Why only a semicircular shape is formed (or is colorful).

  • $\begingroup$ Related: physics.stackexchange.com/q/14218/2451 $\endgroup$ – Qmechanic Mar 14 '12 at 7:41
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    $\begingroup$ This is partly due to the anthropic principal. What you are describing is akin to an infinituple rainbow (c.f. double rainbow). Surely no conscious being could observe such phenomena and survive. ;P $\endgroup$ – Stephen McAteer Mar 14 '12 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ Take an outdoor shower on a clear day with the sun directly above you. You will see the rainbow in a circle around you, because the droplets are all around you, and the ones that are in just the right position will reflect the color (off their opposite surface). But lean against a wall, and now there's a side of you with no droplets. Therefore - not a full circle. $\endgroup$ – Mike Dunlavey Oct 5 '12 at 16:45

I will point to a reference,

it says,

Three things must happen for you to see a rainbow's colors. First, the sun must be shining. Second, the sun must be behind you, and third, there must be water drops in the air in front of you. Sunlight shines into the water drops, which act as tiny prisms that bend or "refract" the light and separate it into colors.

Actually, the rays of light bend twice. As they enter the drops, the rays of light bend, then reflect off the back of the drops. Then they bend again, this time while exiting the drops. That's when the light appears before our eyes.

Each drop reflects only one color of light, so there must be many water drops to make a full rainbow. You'll see the brightest rainbows when the water drops are large, usually right after a rain shower.

The rainbow is circular because when a raindrop bends light, the light exits the raindrop at an angle 40 to 42 degrees away from the angle it entered the raindrop.

and regarding full circular rainbow,

But if the sun is very low in the sky, either just before sunset or just after sunrise, we can see a half circle. The higher the sun is in the sky, the less we see of the rainbow.

The only way to see the full circle of a rainbow in the sky is to be above the raindrops and have the sun behind you. You would have to look down on the drops from an airplane.

  • $\begingroup$ I have seen a circular rainbow, but I cannot remember the entire environment when I saw it. but I wasn't in the air, it was foggy or had been raining ahead of me if I recall correctly. $\endgroup$ – Malachi Jun 20 '16 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Malachi, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/22%C2%B0_halo is a different phenomenon. $\endgroup$ – Vineet Menon Jun 27 '16 at 9:30
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    $\begingroup$ That very well could have been what happened. it looked just like any other rainbow except that it was a full circle. very cool either way. $\endgroup$ – Malachi Jun 27 '16 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ I don't understand "The rainbow is circular because when a raindrop bends light, the light exits the raindrop at an angle 40 to 42 degrees away from the angle it entered the raindrop." as the magnitude of the angle should not make any difference on whether the rainbow appears or not? $\endgroup$ – famargar Nov 1 '18 at 16:53

Rainbow light does reach you from a large fraction of the atmosphere. Here's a picture: enter image description here

The inside of the rainbow is much brighter than the outside. So you're getting a lot of light from water droplets all over the inside of the rainbow.

Here's a picture I made showing what light does when it enters a water droplet

enter image description here

Incoming light from the sun gets spread out through many different angles, but it mostly piles up around the bottom edge of the picture.

Here it is with both blue and yellow light:

enter image description here

Blue light does pretty much the same, but the angles are slightly off. The place where blue light bunches up is a slightly different place.

So you see separation of colors out at the edge of the rainbow. Throughout the body of the rainbow you see all colors mixed together.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your reply it really helped me understanding the concept. $\endgroup$ – Digvijay Yadav Oct 8 '12 at 12:06

The rainbow formed by caustics, which are concentrated rays. This is why only portion of water drops reflect light to the given observer.



This is just a guess, as I have no formal training.

My guess would be that it is due to the spherical nature of the atmosphere the light is passing through. If you have a glass globe and shine a light through it the light is bent as it passes through and the pattern that is made on the object on the other side of the globe is circular (or semi-circular).

It's also a question of relative position. If you took a snapshot at every point that can view the phenomena and super-impose them over each other, you would find that in a 3-D model that the whole area IS colored. It's just that you can only see it from your singular point of view. It's like a light-bulb, when you look at it straight on it is one color, we will go with white. That same white light is being passed through the entire room, but you only see the photons that are traveling straight at you. If you could 'see' the photons as they were in an instant it would light (or in the case of your question, color) the entire view-able area...

Is this close?

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    $\begingroup$ It is due to the spherical nature of the rain drops, not the atmosphere. $\endgroup$ – Frédéric Grosshans Mar 14 '12 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ -1. Rainbow due to a hose usage also circular. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Mar 14 '12 at 20:36

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