Notes From A Queer Engineer: 5 Facts About Rainbows

Notes From A Queer Engineer_Rory Midhani_640

Header by Rory Midhani
Feature image by shutterstock

It’s June and everything’s coming up rainbows! Because unique market segments make for juicy targets under capitalism, and I guess that’s what we are now that “dangerous criminal deviant” has become passé. What a time to be alive, huh? One minute I’m thinking about corporate exploitation of low income members of our community and feeling repulsed by NYC Pride™’s priorities; the next I’m pondering which rainbow sneakers would make my feet look gayest and gleefully “pride” reacting everything in sight. Life under President 45 is grim and shocking, and I’ll take small joys wherever I can find them.

In that spirit — here are five facts about rainbows! Everything is fucked, but at least we still have science and each other. Happy pride, however you do or don’t celebrate.

1. Isaac Newton originated “ROYGBIV” because he thought the range of visible colors should be analogous to the seven note musical scale of traditional Western music.

Video via The Atlantic.

Newton came up with the seven designations after projecting white light through a prism onto a wall and having a friend mark the boundaries between colors. Though the classification was largely arbitrary, it continues to be taught in schools today.

Interestingly, you’ll note that pride imagery typically show only six distinct colors today, although the original flag included eight.

2. The sky above a rainbow is darker than the sky below a rainbow.

None of the light can make it out above red, because each color refracts at a particular maximum angle. Here’s Physics Girl with more:

3. In addition to single rainbows, there are double rainbows, tertiary rainbows, quaternary rainbows, supernumerary rainbows, and twinned rainbows.

Here’s Maddie Moate creating a circular rainbow and explaining double rainbow physics:

See also: LeVar Burton’s breakdown of double rainbows and National Geographic’s coverage of atmospheric scientist Jean Ricard’s rainbow classification scheme.

4. If we lived on Tatooine (or a non-fictional planet that orbited two suns and had raindrops made of water or something with similar refractive properties), rainbows would always be overlapping.

A stick figure Dorothy standing under four overlapping rainbows with a dog. Dialog box says "But which one, Toto?"

Via xkcd.

Yup! For the full explanation, check out xkcd.

5. Similar to rainbows, a “glory” is a highly distorted image of the sun reflected off aerosols in the atmosphere, but with rays passing near droplets (instead of directly through them).

Colorful bands in a semi-concentric pattern.

Glory seen at the Venus cloud tops, 70 km above the planet’s surface. Via European Space Agency.

The above photo is the first sighting of a full extraterrestrial glory, taken by ESA’s Venus Express orbiter in July 2011. Here at home, glories are most often seen by air travelers looking down at the clouds, or hikers atop misty mountain peaks. Nature has a good piece on the phenomenon, including what the above photo signified for scientists studying Venus’s atmosphere.

Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of 14 days. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.

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Laura Mandanas

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 210 articles for us.


  1. All I could think about was when Christians hold up signs saying “but how do you explain rainbows?”

    This. This is how you explain rainbows.

    • SMH. Just because they ditched Science 101 to hold on to their fairytales doesn’t mean all of us did…

      • … when I say “fairytales”, my wish isn’t to mock or criticise anybody with religious beliefs. I’m talking about those who still reject basic scientific evidence because their religious text once said the earth is flat…

      • The particular individual Christians that don’t represent everybody that holds Christian beliefs*

  2. Awesome. I knew about good old Newton, but not about the rest. That glory photo is beautiful!

  3. My dad went through a storm in a helicopter once and told me there was a rainbow in a ring around the helicopter….and I never really believed him because I didn’t think you could get circular rainbows but NOW I KNOW!!!!

  4. How had I missed that What If?! Thanks so much for bringing it to my attention. I have a few related requests:

    I would like to front Alexander’s Dark Band. My name is not Alexander, but we can write that off as irony or something, I expect…

    I would like to identify as circumbinary from now on, instead of bi. I’m just happily revolving around these two nice poles and all that lovely space between them and overlapping rainbows all over my face.

    • I love this so much. Enjoy your overlapping face rainbows. You are clearly living your best life.

  5. Thank you for the LeVar Burton link!!!! His explanation of rainbows on Reading Rainbow like twenty years ago was the first time I understood how they work and I’ll never forget it! Nice update on double rainbows

  6. “Everything is fucked, but at least we still have science and each other. ”

    ! Yes.

    Thank you for the rainbow facts!

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