Is this the longest-lasting rainbow ever?

  • 5 December 2017
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The record-breaking rainbow

Students and professors at the Taipei Chinese Culture University in Taiwan, China were amazed to see this incredible rainbow.

It lasted a record-breaking nine hours, from 6:57am until 15:55

This smashed the previous record of six hours set in Yorkshire in 1994.

We see rainbows everywhere - rainbow cakes, rainbow emojis, rainbow flags, but what are rainbows exactly? And why are they so fascinating?

What is a rainbow?

A good question, but a tricky one to answer. We will need the help of science to explain where rainbows come from.

Rainbows are actually a trick of the light and are not physical objects. They appear in the sky when the sun shines through water droplets in the air.

The water droplets act like prisms, objects that both reflect and refract light.

Reflection is when a source of light bounces back to you. Shiny things like mirrors, glass and puddles are examples of things that reflect light.

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Image caption Light is reflected off shiny surfaces, such as mirrors or even puddles!

Refraction is a bit more complicated. To understand refraction, it is important to know that light is a wave of energy that travels at different speeds when it passes through different things.

When light enters into an object from the air, such as water or glass, it changes speed. This change in speed makes the light bend in a different direction.

That is why when you look at your hands underneath water, they can look like they're in a totally different position to where they really are.

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Image caption Prisms are objects that can split light into separate colours.

White light can actually be broken up into all these different colours. This separation can happen when light bends through a prism.

If this all seems really confusing, don't worry - it can be really difficult to understand.

The main thing to remember is that when you see a rainbow in the sky, it is a result of the sun shining through millions of water droplets acting like prisms. How magical does that sound?

So where is the end of a rainbow?

Another good question, but again a difficult one to answer.

The truth is there is no such thing as the end of a rainbow!

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Image caption Rainbows are actually circles and not arcs.

A rainbow is actually a complete circle, but because of where we are usually positioned on the ground when we look at rainbows, we can only see a half-circle or an arc.

If you were in an aeroplane and you spotted a rainbow, you might see it as a circle, as shown in the picture above.

Unfortunately, this means you won't be finding a pot of gold or a leprechaun waiting for you at the end of a rainbow, because there is no actual end to rainbow!

Why are rainbows so popular?

Before the science behind rainbows was known, rainbows were understandably quite confusing and mystical to many cultures.

Across the world, different societies had lots of ideas about what they were and what they could mean.

Here are some of the theories from world mythology to explain the existence of rainbows.

The most colourful bridge ever

For many old civilisations, rainbows were seen as a link between earth and a spiritual world.

In Norse mythology, rainbows were a connection between the Midgard (the earth) and the home of the gods, Asgard.

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Image caption Many people believed that a rainbow was a path between earth and spiritual places.

This bridge was called Bifröst, and according to legend, they believed it would eventually be broken in a war called Ragnarök.

In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, a rainbow was a path made by goddess called Iris, and she used it to carry messages between humans and gods.

This is where we get the name for the iris in the eye, because irises have many different colours.

And in Navajo tribes in North America, they thought that rainbows were the paths of holy spirits.

Serpents in the sky

Aboriginal tribes in Australia refer to the rainbow as a snake in the sky, and it is known as The Creator. Many of these tribes believe that this rainbow serpent came from the water to create the world and everything within it.

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Image caption Rainbow serpents are often spoken about in ancient myths.

Similarly, in China, one of the words for rainbow is hong. Hong was the name for a two-headed 'rainbow-dragon' that appears throughout Chinese mythology.

A symbol of peace and happiness

While in some areas of the world, rainbows are seen as a bad omen, in many cultures they are signs of peace and happiness.

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Image caption In Judaism and Christianity, rainbows and doves are seen as a sign of peace from God.

For example, in Jewish and Christian faiths, there is a famous story of a man called Noah who saves his family and two of every animal on earth from a great flood.

After the flood, God creates a rainbow and sends a dove with an olive branch to Noah. This rainbow is interpreted as a sign of peace from God.

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