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Noah’s Arc: ASine in the Sky

John A. Adam
Department of Mathematics and Statistics
Old Dominion University
Norfolk, VA 23529

The multiple puns in the title (two obvious, one a little more subtle) are based on the story of
Noah written in chapters 6–9 in the book of Genesis. While it is doubtful that he was interested in
the subject of inverse trigonometric functions, jokes about Noah, snakes (adders) and logarithms
abound on internet math-joke sites. And perhaps he was too preoccupied with cleaning up the Ark
after the animals had left to realize how important Pythagoras’ theorem is in establishing results like
equation (5) below. Nevertheless, according to the Biblical account, and like many of us, Noah did
get to see a highly distorted and displaced prismatic image of the sun, at infinity – a rainbow – and
an elementary explanation of its occurrence does require some geometry, trigonometry and calculus
of a single variable. It is the purpose of this note to draw out some little known (and on occasion,
possibly previously unknown) mathematical relationships arising in the mathematics of the rainbow.
For general scientific and mathematical background, see references 1 through 5. A review of more
advanced theories may be found in references 6 and 7.)

What is a rainbow? It is “... at one and the same time one of the most beautiful visual displays in
nature and, in a sense, an intangible phenomenon. It is illusory in that it is not of course a solid arch,
but like mirages, it is nonetheless real. It can be seen and photographed, and described as a
phenomenon of mathematical physics, but it cannot be located at a specific place, only in a particular
direction. What then is a rainbow? It is sunlight, displaced by reflection and dispersed by refraction
in raindrops. It is seen by an observer with his or her back to the sun (under appropriate
circumstances)...the primary rainbow, which is the lowest and brightest of two that may be seen, is
formed from two refractions and one reflection in myriads of raindrops...” [1; also see Figure 1]. The
path for the secondary rainbow is similar, but involves one more internal reflection. In principle, an
unlimited number of rainbows exist from a single drop, but light loss at each reflection limits the
number of rainbows to two (claims have been made concerning observations of the tertiary bow, but
such a bow would occur around the sun, and be very difficult to observe, quite apart from its intrinsic
faintness.)

The standard ray-theoretic calculus-based approach to rainbow formation in spherical droplets


has been known since the time of Newton (indeed, it was first studied by him, although Descartes
contributed much to the underlying ray theory). Using Snell’s laws of refraction and reflection it is
readily shown that for k internal reflections and two refractions in a spherical raindrop, the angle
through which an incoming ray is deviated (as a function of the angle of incidence i is defined by

Dk i k 2i 2k 1 arcsin sin
n
i , (1)

n 1 being the constant refractive index of the drop. Figure 2 shows the ray paths for k 1 and
2. The reason a rainbow exists at all (and would do even in the absence of spectral dispersion, as a
“whitebow”) is because there is an extremum (a minimum to be precise) in D k i at the critical angle
of incidence i c defined by the vanishing of D k i . Again, it is a standard exercise to establish that
1/2
ic arccos n2 1 . (2)
kk 2
For a specified number of reflections k there is clearly a limit on the value of n (namely
1 n k 1 , though in practice this is not an issue (on planet Earth, at least) since n 4/3 for
water. Of course, n is slightly wavelength dependent in the optical spectrum, and it is this that gives
rise to the colors (and indeed, the width) of the rainbow, though as mentioned above, this is not a
necessary condition for the existence of the curved caustic in the sky known by another name... (For
k 1 and n 4/3, equation (2) yields i c 59°.

It is of some aesthetic interest to express the deviation D k i c at the critical angle of incidence in
terms of k and the refractive index n only, i.e. without any reference to i or i c . I illustrate this for the
case of k 1 and state the results for k 2, 3, 4, 5 (which as far as I know are new, as is the rather
cumbersome general case, also stated). Using equations (1) and (2) it follows that
D1 ic n2 1 4 n2
arccos 2 arcsin A 2B. (3)
2 3 3n 2
Figure 2 illustrates the Pythagorean relationships associated with the angles A and B for the case
of an arbitrary number of internal reflections k. For k 1 it follows from equation (3) that
D1 ic
cos sin A 2B sin A cos 2 B sin 2 B 2 cos A sin B cos B. (4)
2
After some algebraic manipulation the following succinct result is established:
3/2
D1 ic 2 arccos 1 4 n2 . (5)
n2 3
Again, for our generic value of n 4/3, we find that D 1 i c 138°, so the primary rainbow
appears to the observer as an arc of angular diameter about 180° 138° 42° from the imaginary
line joining the sun to the shadow of the observer’s head (the antisolar point). Thus this rainbow lies
as it were, on the surface of a right circular cone of semi-angle 42° (see Figure 1). Of course, it
could only be this far from the horizon (in an angular sense) if the sun were on the opposite horizon;
generally, the rainbow arc is not a semicircle.

Corresponding results for higher k values are similarly obtained, although the algebra does get
rather tedious (but can be checked using using symbolic software). Thus it can be shown that
3
2 9 n2
D2 ic 2 arcsin n 1 ; (6)
2n

One can verify that D 2 i c 129°, and so the secondary bow appears at about 51° from the
solar–antisolar line.
3/2
1 16 n2
D3 ic 2 arccos 27n 2 32 ; (7)
5 15 3/2 n4

Just for fun, note that D 3 i c 42° (coincidentally), and so would appear as a very faint ring
around the sun with this angular diameter, if it could be seen above the glare of the sun in that part of
the sky, which is highly unlikely. Rings around the sun are quite common, but they are halos, caused
by the refraction of sunlight in hexagonal ice crystals associated with the high-altitude cirrus type of
cloud. The most common sight is the 22° halo; there is a rarer 46° halo also, and quite a menagerie
of other related shapes (see http://www.atoptics.co.uk/ for more details).

3/2
n2 1 25 n2 25 16n 2
D4 ic 2 arcsin ; and (8)
63n5

35
D5 ic 2 arccos 36 n2 n2 36 3125n 4 9792n 2 6912 . (9)
7 35 3 n 6
Clearly, one can have too much of a good thing. Nevertheless, although a complete pattern is
hard to discern for the general case based on these expressions, a general result may be obtained,
based on the following results for arbitrary (positive integer) values of k. According to figure 2,

k 1 2 n2 n2 1 , and
sin A ; cos A (10)
kk 2 kk 2

k 1 2 n2 k 1 2 n2 1
sin B ; cos B ,
n2k k 2 n2k k 2

so general expressions for D k i c corresponding to equation (5) may be derived. They are

D i k 1 2 n2 k 1 2 n2 1
1 k/2
sin k c cos k 1 arccos (11)
2 kk 2 n2k k 2

n2 1 sin k 1 2 n2 1
k 1 arccos for k even, and
kk 2 n2k k 2

k 1 /2 Dk ic k 1 2 n2 k 1 2 n2 1
1 cos cos k 1 arccos (12)
2 kk 2 n2k k 2

n2 1 sin k 1 2 n2 1
k 1 arccos for k odd.
kk 2 n2k k 2

Thus if the right-hand sides of equations (11) and (12) are denoted by k, n and k, n
respectively, then for even values of k
k/2
Dk ic 2 1 arcsin k, n , (13)
and for odd values of k
Dk ic 2 arccos k, n . (14)
Further results regarding the nature of the extremum at D i c are straightforward (but somewhat
tedious) to derive. Recalling the cylindrical symmetry of the ray/raindrop system, the second
derivative of D i is found to be positive for all k in the relevant domain of i, hence indicating that
all the extrema are minima:
sin i
2k 1 n 2 1 tan arcsin n
Dk i 0 i 0, , and in particular (15a,b)
n 2 cos 2 arcsin sinn i 2
2k k 2 kk 2 n2 1
Dk ic .
2
k 1 n2 1

This last result again has the advantage of depending only on the prescribed quantities k and n.

The results (11) – (14) are cumbersome indeed, and a potential “exercise for the reader” is to
attempt to establish, possibly by induction, a general form for D k i c containing the results (5) – (9).

The classical theory of the rainbow is a wonderful vehicle with which to illustrate aspects of
elementary geometry, trigonometry and differential calculus, and paradoxically, though rainbows
have been observed since mankind first began to look to the sky and marvel at what he saw, for
many students this is a new context in which to think about mathematics! And while these results
indicate in particular that the ray theory of rainbow formation is heavily dependent on trigonometry,
this should enhance, rather than diminish the enjoyment of mathematicians and others who are
treated to the spectacle of a rainbow (and possibly more...).

References
[1] John A. Adam, Mathematics in Nature: Modeling Patterns in the Natural World. Princeton
University Press, 2003, p.80.

[2] Joe Dan Austin and F. Barry Dunning,(1988), Mathematics of the Rainbow, The Mathematics
Teacher (September 1988), 484–488.

[3] Robert G. Greenler, Rainbows, Halos and Glories. Cambridge University Press, 1980.

[4] W.J. Humphreys, Physics of the Air. Dover, New York, 1964.

[5] Raymond L. Lee, Jr., and Alistair B. Fraser, The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in Art, Myth
and Science, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

[6] John A. Adam, The Mathematical Physics of Rainbows and Glories, Physics Reports 356
(2001), 229–365.

[7] John A. Adam, Like a bridge over colored water: a mathematical review of The Rainbow Bridge:
Rainbows in Art, Myth and Science by R. Lee and A. Fraser, Notices of the AMS, 49 (2002),
1360–1371.

Figure captions:
Figure 1: The path of a ray of sunlight inside a spherical raindrop which contributes to
the formation of the primary rainbow upon exiting the drop (solid lines). The angles
of incidence and refraction are respectively i and r; for the primary bow there are two
refractions and one internal reflection. The diagram is cylindrically symmetric about
the axis of symmetry (the diameter of the drop parallel to the incident ray). The
additional ray path for the secondary bow is also indicated (dashed lines).

Figure 2: The Pythagorean relationships associated with the angles A and B defined for general
values of k in equation (10).