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What do rainbows and oars dipped into water have in common?  Both dance with light  to cause illusions of  how we see the world.  What we see isn’t always real. How we see often is distorted by real things into fooling our minds into believing something else is real, that isn’t. For example,  when seen at certain angles an oar appears bent, rather than straight, as observed through the prism effect of water. Refraction, put more precisely, describes the mechanism of this play of light and its  distortion.

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Prisms allow us to see the full spectrum of color that makes up all light,  just as does water, which is natures prism.  When a beam of light travels through a prism, it is bent by refraction.  The angle of bend is different for each color.  So when white light (which contains all colors) goes through a prism, each color emerges from the other side at slightly different angles and is why you can see all the different colors in their correct order as seen in the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet.


Rainbows and oars  play with light to fool our eyes into a beautiful deception of reality.  With the sun behind our backs and looking at a distant storm in front, we can see a rainbow.   Every drop of water in the storm acts like a prism to break white light into the full spectrum of all colors. But your eye can only see one color, because it cannot see the full spectrum in just one rain drop. It takes several raindrops to accumulate every color that forms the rainbow. Why?

The far side of each rain drop acts like a mirror when sun light travels through it.  As the sun passes through each drop of water it turns a somersault inside and is reflected backwards and downwards to hit your eye. The falling of rain and millions of drops allow the various angles bent by the different colors to be seen as the full spectrum, thus the rainbow. If it was only one drop, we would see the rainbow as only one color. If several people of different heights were looking at the same drop, each would see a different solid color, as each would be seeing it from a different angle. Remember again, the degree of angle determines the color seen, because each color is revealed by the difference of those refracted angles.

Both illusions of a bent oar and rainbow depend on the refraction of light by water to be seen. Such is the  magic show of nature as it tricks our mind and perception of reality.  But, a double rainbow? Well, that’s another story.

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