3
$\begingroup$

Clouds are made out of tiny droplets of water. These droplets, to my understanding, act like tiny prisms (which is why there are rainbows after rain). From my line of thinking, if we had a room with a bunch of prisms randomly placed about and had a light enter from one side, the walls would be quite colorful.

Why, then are clouds white (and then darker shades of gray as they become filled with more rain)?

Edit: I understand that white is all the colors together, but if that logic applies to clouds, then why not rainbows?

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Clouds are multi-colored. Mix together all the colors, and what you see is white. In fact, I'm typing this on a screen that looks white. A magnifying glass shows that it is not white. It is red, green, and blue. $\endgroup$ – Mike Dunlavey Mar 16 '16 at 19:17
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @lemon So then why do we see rainbows as multiple colors? $\endgroup$ – David Starkey Mar 16 '16 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeDunlavey A screen is pretty organized, though. It seems less likely that random patterns making up a cloud would map so perfectly that there would not be at least partial spots of different colors. $\endgroup$ – David Starkey Mar 16 '16 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ I think the contrast in your comment should be in the main question: that is, why do we see colors in rainbows but not in clouds? $\endgroup$ – tom10 Mar 16 '16 at 19:32
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Iridescent clouds can occur, but special conditions are needed. Links go to one of the Internet's secret treasures. $\endgroup$ – rob Mar 16 '16 at 19:45
5
$\begingroup$

From my line of thinking, if we had a room with a bunch of prisms randomly placed about and had a light enter from one side, the walls would be quite colorful.

That would depend on the size of the prisms. If the prisms are large enough, then they will throw macroscopic patches of color on the walls. The light path reaching two spots on the wall a millimeter apart may travel through the same prism in almost the same way. This patch is large enough to map over several cones in your retina, allowing color detection.

If the prisms you threw up were randomly oriented and microscopic, then there will be no large patches of color anywhere. If the overlap of the color patches projected onto your retina is such that each cone is getting about the same distribution of wavelengths, then the color effect is lost and you just perceive white.

...if that logic applies to clouds, then why not rainbows?

Clouds are microscopic water drops. Most of the light is scattered from the surface of drops with no preferred direction. You also get multiple scattering events. The end result is all the wavelengths going in all directions.

Rain drops are much larger. The surface to volume ratio is much smaller, so less light is scattered from the surface than with the same mass of water as condensation. Instead of multiple scattering events from the surface, you can get a significant amount of light reflected from the interior of the drop. Combined with incident light of one angle, and drops all relatively near each other, you get the effect of oriented prisms.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Why does the same not apply in the case of rainbows? $\endgroup$ – David Starkey Mar 16 '16 at 20:13
  • $\begingroup$ Clouds, seen from below, are illuminated by diffuse light, which washes out the rainbow effect. The best rainbow results only when direct (unidirectional) sunlight is dominant. The first-order rainbow, as we all know, is seen with the sun in clear skies at your back, as you peer into mist. $\endgroup$ – Whit3rd Mar 18 '16 at 9:31
0
$\begingroup$

According to the color spectrum, when all colors combine they make white. You are completely correct. The raindrops do act like a prism. When all the colors combine they form white.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.