Where Do Rainbows Come From?

Where do rainbows come from? This is actually a pretty fun question. “Answers” range from the scientific to the cultural with a lot of silliness along the way.

First, let’s start with the “what’s the deal with colors?” question by none other than Bill Nye the Science Guy!

So what are the colors of the rainbow? ROYGBIV! That’s Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet (you may remember the popular mnemonic device Roy G. Biv to remember the colors). However for most of us it’s red(ish), green(ish), and blue(ish) which is where we get the acronym ‘RGB’.

Turns out there are two ways our eyes receive colors. Do you know the difference in RGB and CMYK?

RGB = Red, Green, Blue
RGB deals with projecting light and is referred to as ‘additive color‘. If you had a light projector (like you’d find in the back of the auditorium of a performance) and you use the red, green, and blue filters together, you’ll project white light. This is the same principle that works in TVs and computer monitors.

CMYK = Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black
CMYK deals with receptive or absorbent light and is referred to as ‘subtractive color‘. Mostly this model is used for print and paint. Cyan is light blueish, Magenta is pinkish, and black is represented as K for ‘key‘ (the basis for the other colors).

So how do these color theories play out in real life? Here’s a video from a graphic designer explaining the difference in RGB and CMYK.

A prism will change the speed of light and create the rainbow colors. However, in the natural world, it is usually moisture and the angle of light that creates rainbows.

Some say it’s from whales.

Others say they are from unicorns.


Lately some say they are from the Nyan Cat.

Rainbows have been important in the world’s cultures. Christians and Jews say a rainbow is a reminder from God that He won’t flood the earth like He did at the time of Noah. A Hindu god, Indra, uses a rainbow to shoot lightning. The Irish have a Leprechaun’s pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Norse mythology say there is a rainbow bridge from Earth to Asgard (heaven) used by fallen, virtuous gods. There’s so much more that you can check out.

No matter what, rainbows are beautiful and fascinating whether you look at it from the religious, mythological, silly, or scientific views. It’s not every day you see one in the sky. But maybe next time you do see one, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

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