Angle of Deviation in a Raindrop


This is one of a set of almost 40 diagrams exploring Rainbows.

Each diagram appears on a separate page and is supported by a full explanation.

  • Follow the links embedded in the text for definitions of all the key terms.
  • For quick reference don’t miss the summaries of key terms further down each page.


Angle of Deviation in a Raindrop

Deviation measures the degree to which raindrops cause sunlight to change direction in the process of its refraction and reflection back towards an observer. The position of raindrops in the sky and the amount of deviation determine whether the light will be visible to an observer.
Yes! Chromatic dispersion takes place as light crosses the boundary between one transparent medium and another if it has a different refractive index.
The wavelength of incident light decreases as it travels from air into a raindrop because water is an optically slower medium.

About the diagram

Overview of raindrops

An idealized raindrop forms a sphere. These are the ones that are favoured when drawing diagrams of both raindrops and rainbows because they suggest that when light, air and water droplets interact they produce predictable and replicable outcomes.

  • In real-life, full-size raindrops don’t form perfect spheres because they are composed of water which is fluid and held together solely by surface tension.
  • In normal atmospheric conditions, the air a raindrop moves through is itself in constant motion, and, even at a cubic metre scale or smaller, is composed of areas at slightly different temperatures and pressure.
  • As a result of turbulence, a raindrop is rarely in free-fall because it is buffeted by the air around it, accelerating or slowing as conditions change from moment to moment.
  • The more spherical raindrops are, the better defined is the rainbow they produce because each droplet affects incoming sunlight in a consistent way. The result is stronger colours and more defined arcs.
Real-life raindrops
  • Raindrops start to form high in the atmosphere around tiny particles called condensation nuclei — these can be composed of particles of dust and smoke or fragments of airborne salt left over when seawater evaporates.
  • Raindrops form around condensation nuclei as water vapour cools producing clouds of microscopic droplets each of which is held together by surface tension and starts off roughly spherical.
  • Surface tension is the tendency of liquids to shrink to the minimum surface area possible as their molecules cohere to one another.
  • At water-air interfaces, the surface tension that holds water molecules together results from the fact that they are attracted to one another rather than to the nitrogen, oxygen, argon or carbon dioxide molecules also present in the atmosphere.
  • As clouds of water droplets begin to form, they are between 0.0001 and 0.005 centimetres in diameter.
  • As soon as droplets form they start to collide with one another. As larger droplets bump into other smaller droplets they increase in size — this is called coalescence.
  • Once droplets are big and heavy enough they begin to fall and continue to grow. Droplets can be thought to be raindrops once they reach 0.5mm in diameter.
  • Sometimes, gusts of wind (updraughts) force raindrops back into the clouds and coalescence starts over.
  • As full-size raindrops fall they lose some of their roundness, the bottom flattens out because of wind resistance whilst the top remains rounded.
  • Large raindrops are the least stable, so once a raindrop is over 4 millimetres it may break apart to form smaller more regularly shaped drops.
  • In general terms, raindrops are different sizes for two primary reasons,  initial differences in particle (condensation nuclei) size and different rates of coalescence.
  • As raindrops near the ground, the biggest are the ones that bump into and coalesce with the most neighbours.
Overview of raindrop geometry

An idealised raindrop forms a geometrically perfect sphere. Although such a form is one in a million in real-life,  simplified geometrical raindrops help to make sense of rainbows and reveal general rules governing why they appear.

The insights that can be gained from exploring the geometry of raindrops apply to every rainbow, whilst the rainbows we come across in everyday life demonstrate that each individual case is unique.

Don’t forget that the idea of light rays is also a way to simplify the behaviour of light:

  • The idea that light is made up of rays is so commonplace when describing and explaining rainbows that it is easily taken for granted.
  • The idea of light rays is useful when trying to model how light and raindrops produce the rainbow effects seen by an observer.
  • Light rays don’t exist in the sense that the term accurately describes a physical property of light. More accurate descriptions use terms like photons or waves.
Basics of raindrop geometry
  • A line drawing of a spherical raindrop is the starting point for exploring how raindrops produce rainbows.
  • The easiest way to represent a raindrop is as a cross-section that cuts it in half through the middle.
  • A dot or small circle can be used to mark the centre whilst the larger circle marks the circumference.
  • Marking the centre makes it easy to add lines that show the radius and diameter.
  • Marking the centre also makes it easy to add lines that are normal to the circumference.
  • A normal (or the normal) refers to a line drawn perpendicular to and intersecting another line, plane or surface.
  • A normal is used in a diagram to connect the centre with a point where a ray strikes the circumference.
  • The diameter of a circle is a line that passes through its centre and is drawn from the circumference on one side to the other.
  • The radius of a circle is a line from the centre to any point on the circumference.
  • The horizontal axis of a raindrop is a line drawn through its centre and parallel to incident light. The vertical axis intersects the horizontal at 900 and also passes through the centre point.
  • The angle at which incident light strikes the surface of a raindrop can be calculated by drawing a line that shows where an incident ray strikes a droplet and then drawing the normal. The angle of incidence is measured between them.
  • The path of light as it strikes the surface and changes direction as it is refracted at the boundary between air and water can be calculated using the Law of Refraction (Snell’s law).
  • When light is refracted as it enters a droplet it bends towards the normal.
  • The law of reflection can be used to calculate the change of direction each time light reflects off the inside surface of the raindrop.
  • When light exits a raindrop the angle of refraction is the same as when it entered but this time bends away from the normal.
About the diagram
  • This diagram looks closely at the angle of deviation of a red ray of light transmitted through a raindrop.
  • As the section below explains, the angle of deviation measures the degree to which the path of a light ray is bent back on itself by a raindrop in the course of refraction and reflection towards an observer.
  • The diagram shows that the angle of deviation (d) of the red ray of light after exiting the raindrop is:
    • Equal to 1800 – z. The angle marked z = the angle of deflection.
    • Equal to the three angles of deflection combined (d1+ d2 + d3).
  • Visitors may like to compare the information in this diagram with Path of a Red Ray Through a Raindrop, an earlier diagram in the series.
Angle of deviation

(1) The angle of deviation measures the angle between the direction of an incident ray and the direction of a refracted ray when light travels from one medium to another

(2) The angle of deviation measures the degree to which the path of light through a raindrop is altered in the course of refraction and reflection towards an observer.

About the angle of deviation (Raindrops)
  • The angle of deviation is measured between the path of light incident to a raindrop and its path after it exits the raindrop back into air.
  • In any particular example of light passing through a raindrop, the angle of deviation and the angle of deflection are directly related to one another and together add up to 1800.
  • The angle of deviation is always equal to 1800 minus the angle of deflection. So clearly the angle of deflection is always equal to 1800 minus the angle of deviation.
  • In any particular example, the angle of deflection is always the same as the viewing angle because the incident light that forms a rainbow, if thought of in terms of rays, is approaching on trajectories running parallel with the rainbow axis.
Remember that:
  • Any ray of light (stream of photons) travelling through empty space, unaffected by gravitational forces, travels in a straight line forever.
  • When light leaves  a vacuum or travels from one transparent medium into another, it undergoes refraction causing it to change both direction and speed.
  • The more a ray changes direction as it passes through a raindrop the greater will be its angle of deviation.
  • Amongst the optical properties of air and water, absorption, reflection, refraction, and scattering of light are the most important.
  • It is the optical properties of raindrops that determine the angle of deviation of incident light as it exits a raindrop.
  • It is the optical properties of raindrops that prevent any ray of visible light from exiting a primary raindrop at an angle of deviation less than 137.60.
Now consider the following:
  • For a single incident ray of light of a known wavelength striking a raindrop at a known angle:
    • To appear in a primary rainbow it must reach an angle of deviation of at least 137.60 if it is to be visible to an observer.
    • 137.60 is the angle of deviation that produces the appearance of red along the outside edge of a primary rainbow from the point of view of an observer.
    • 137.60 is the minimum angle of deviation for any ray of visible light if it is to appear within a primary rainbow.
    • 139.30 is the angle of deviation for a ray that appears violet along the inside edge of a primary rainbow.
    • Angles of deviation between 137.60 and 139.30 correspond with viewing angles between 42.40 (red) and 40.70 (violet).
    • For any raindrop to form part of a primary rainbow it must be between the viewing angles of 42.40 (red) and 40.70 (violet)
    • An angle of deviation of 137.60 (so viewing angles of 42.40) corresponds with the appearance of red light with a wavelength of approx. 720 nm.
  • The range of angles of deviation that create the impression of colour for an observer is not related to droplet size.
  • The laws of refraction (Snell’s law) and reflection can be used to calculate the angle of deviation of white light in a raindrop.
  • The angle of deviation can be fine-tuned for any specific wavelength by making a small adjustment to the refractive index of water.
Minimum angle of deviation
  • The optical properties of an idealised spherical raindrop mean that no light of any specific wavelength can deviate less than its minimum angle of deviation.
  • The minimum angle of deviation for red light with a wavelength of approx. 720 nm is always 137.60 but similar rays with other points of impact can deviate up to a maximum of 1800.
  • Imagine a falling raindrop:
    • At a specific moment, the droplet is at an angle of 500 from the rainbow axis as seen from the point of view of an observer. This corresponds with an angle of deviation of 1300 which is insufficient to be visible to an observer.
    • A moment later the droplet is at an angle of 42.40 which is the viewing angle for red in a primary rainbow so the droplet becomes visible to the observer.
    • 42.40 corresponds with the rainbow angle for light with a wavelength of 720 nm, so at this moment the droplet appears red at maximum intensity.
    • As the droplet continues to fall, the minimum angle of deviation for red is passed and so that colour fades just as the minimum angle of deviation for orange arrives. For a second the same droplet now appears intensely orange.
    • The sequence repeats for yellow, green, blue and then violet at which point the viewing angle drops below 40.70. A moment later, it briefly produces ultra-violet light.
    • As soon as the minimum angle of deviation for violet is exceeded, increasing towards 1800, it no longer forms part of the arcs of colour seen by an observer, but continues to scatter light into the area between the bow and anti-solar point.
By way of summary
  • Raindrops emit no light of any particular wavelength at an angle less than its minimum angle of deviation.
  • The minimum angle of deviation for any wavelength of visible light is never less than 137.60  whilst the maximum is always 1800.
  • When the angle of deviation is 1800, the angles or refraction (on the entry and exit of a raindrop) = 00 and the angle of reflection = 1800.

Some key terms

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