# Refraction & Dispersion in a Raindrop

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

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#### Refraction & Dispersion in a Raindrop

###### TRY SOME QUICK QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS TO GET STARTED
Refraction refers to the way light changes both direction and speed as it travels from one transparent medium into another.
As light travels from a fast medium such as air to a slow medium such as water it bends toward 'the normal' and slows down. As light passes from a slow medium such as diamond to a faster medium such as glass it bends away from 'the normal' and speeds up.
Yes! Light travels faster in air than in water.
Refraction refers to the way light changes speed and direction as it travels across the interface between one transparent medium to another.
Yes! When light leaves a vacuum or travels from one transparent medium into another, it undergoes refraction causing it to change both direction and speed.

###### 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.

This diagram considers what happens to a ray of incident light that contains wavelengths corresponding with red, green and blue when it strikes a raindrop.

• It shows that refraction causes chromatic dispersion as each wavelength changes direction by a different amount.
• The effects of refraction, reflection and dispersion all help to explain why rainbows appear when sunlight strikes falling rain.
• Remember that when light strikes the boundary between two different media it may be partially reflected and partially refracted.
• If both reflection and refraction take place:
• A proportion of the light bounces off the surface of the new medium and returns into the medium from which it originated.
• A proportion crosses the boundary and undergoes refraction, so changes speed and direction.
• To delve a bit further into the diagram let’s go on to review the three key concepts, refraction, chromatic dispersion and scattering.
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#### Some key terms

In the field of optics, dispersion is shorthand for chromatic dispersion which refers to the way that light, under certain conditions, separates into its component wavelengths, enabling the colours corresponding with each wavelength to become visible to a human observer.

• Chromatic dispersion refers to the dispersion of light according to its wavelength or colour.
• Chromatic dispersion is the result of the relationship between wavelength and refractive index.
• When light travels from one medium (such as air) to another (such as glass or water) each wavelength is refracted differently, causing the separation of white light into its constituent colours.
• When light undergoes refraction each wavelength changes direction by a different amount. In the case of white light, the separate wavelengths fan out into distinct bands of colour with red on one side and violet on the other.
• Familiar examples of chromatic dispersion are when white light strikes a prism or raindrops and a rainbow of colours becomes visible to an observer.

Reflection takes place when incoming light strikes the surface of a medium, obstructing some wavelengths which bounce back into the medium from which they originated.

Reflection takes place when light is neither absorbed by an opaque medium nor transmitted through a transparent medium.

If the reflecting surface is very smooth, the reflected light is called specular or regular reflection.

Specular reflection occurs when light waves reflect off a smooth surface such as a mirror. The arrangement of the waves remains the same and an image of objects that the light has already encountered become visible to an observer.

Diffuse reflection takes place when light reflects off a rough surface. In this case, scattering takes place and waves are reflected randomly in all directions and so no image is produced.

Refraction refers to the way that electromagnetic radiation (light) changes speed and direction as it travels across the interface between one transparent medium and another.

• As light travels from a fast medium such as air to a slow medium such as water it bends toward the normal and slows down.
• As light passes from a slow medium such as diamond to a faster medium such as glass it bends away from the normal and speeds up.
• In a diagram illustrating optical phenomena like refraction or reflection, the normal is a line drawn at right angles to the boundary between two media.
• A fast (optically rare) medium is one that obstructs light less than a slow medium.
• A slow (optically dense) medium is one that obstructs light more than a fast medium.
• The speed at which light travels through a given medium is expressed by its index of refraction.
• If we want to know in which direction light will bend at the boundary between transparent media we need to know:
• Which is the faster, less optically dense (rare) medium with a smaller refractive index?
• Which is the slower, more optically dense medium with the higher refractive index?
• The amount that refraction causes light to change direction, and its path to bend, is dealt with by Snell’s law.
• Snell’s law considers the relationship between the angle of incidence, the angle of refraction and the refractive indices (plural of index) of the media on both sides of the boundary. If three of the four variables are known, then Snell’s law can calculate the fourth.

A rainbow is an optical effect produced by illuminated droplets of water. Rainbows are caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in individual droplets and results in the appearance of an arc of spectral colours.

• Rainbows only appear when weather conditions are ideal and an observer is in the right place at the right time.
• Waterfalls, lawn sprinklers and other things that produce water droplets can produce a rainbow.
• A rainbow is formed from millions of individual droplets each of which reflects and refracts a tiny coloured image of the sun towards the observer.
• It is the dispersion of light as refraction takes place that produces the rainbow colours seen by an observer.
• When the sun is behind an observer then the rainbow will appear in front of them.

Rainbow colours are the bands of colour seen in rainbows and in other situations where visible light separates into its component wavelengths and the spectral colours corresponding with each wavelength become visible to the human eye.

• The rainbow colours (ROYGBV) in order of wavelength are red (longest wavelength), orange, yellow, green, blue and violet (shortest wavelength).
• The human eye, and so human perception, is tuned to the visible spectrum and so to spectral colours between red and violet. It is the sensitivity of the eye to this small part of the electromagnetic spectrum that results in the perception of colour.
• Defining rainbow colours is a question more closely related to the relationship between perception and language than to anything to do with physics or scientific accuracy.
• Even the commonplace colours associated with the rainbow defy easy definition. They are concepts we generally agree on, but are not strictly defined by anything in the nature of light itself.
• Whilst the visible spectrum and spectral colour are both determined by wavelength and frequency it is our eyes and brains that interpret these and create our perceptions after a lot of processing.

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