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Today were going to answer a seemingly simple question. Why is the sky blue?

The most common answer is that its because it is a reflection of the water from the ocean, but its
actually much more complicated than that.

Lets start with how light and colors work.

White light from the sun is a mixture of all colours of the rainbow.

This fact was demonstrated by Isaac Newton, who, in 1672, published a paper explaining how using a
prism can separate white light into different, and that color was in fact the combination of all the colors
as opposed to there being a mixture of light and varying levels of darkness, which was the popular
theory in that time period.

The part of the spectrum that reflects back into your eye is what gives an object its color.

Each color is distinguished by their difference in wavelengths. The visible part of the spectrum goes from
red to violet, or 380 to about 720 nanometers.

Now back to the color of the sky.

John Tyndall, in 1859, discovered that when light passes through a clear fluid with tiny particles in
suspension, it would appear blue. Lord Rayleigh, a few years later, futher studied this effect and found
that the amount of light scattered is inversely proportional to the fourth power of wavelength for
sufficiently small particles. Generally, blue light is scattered ten times more throughout a fluid than red.

This is actually the reason that the sky appears blue. Water being blue is not due to a reflection either,
but is caused by the same scattering effect.

But if shorter wavelengths are scattered more than longer ones, and violets wavelength is shorter than
blues, then why isnt the sky violet?

Although our atmosphere tends to absorb more of the shorter spectrums you can still see violet light
through a prisim when held against the sky.

The main reason the sky appears blue and not violet has to do with the way our eyes work.

The human eye has three color receptors in our retina: Blue, Red and Green. They are called red, blue
and green because they respond most strongly to light at those wavelengths. Blue cones are stimulated
by colours near blue wavelengths, which are very strongly scattered through the sky.

If there were no indigo and violet in the spectrum, the sky would appear blue with a slight green tinge.
However, the most strongly scattered indigo and violet wavelengths stimulate both the blue cones and
the red cones slightly, which is why these colours appear blue with an added red tinge.

Because we react to blue more strongly than red or green, we see the sky as a pale blue.

What about sunsets?


Sunsets usually appear orange or red. This is actually due to other larger particles, like salts and
pollution scattering and absorbing different parts of light. In addition, the extreme angle of the sun
causes the blue to be scattered at a further distance. Shorter wavelengths dont travel as far as longer
ones so the blue scatter tends to get lost at these extreme angles.

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