7 colorful facts you didn’t know about rainbows

Chances are you’ve seen the video — it’s been viewed on YouTube more than 34 million times. Paul Vasquez, also known as Hungrybear and Double Rainbow guy, alternately moans ecstatically and weeps passionately while seeing a double rainbow.

Posted in January 2010, the video became an Internet meme. It was turned into song parodies and ringtones, and brought Vasquez his requisite 15 minutes of fame.

But men and women have been captivated by the rainbow’s beauty for centuries, wondering, as Vasquez does aloud in the video, “What does this mean?” Many cultures have legends and myths surrounding the power of rainbows, and countless works of art, music, and poetry are devoted to the elusive images.

Ben Michaelis, a New York-based clinical psychologist, said people are fascinated by rainbows and drawn to their promise of a brighter future. “I think the reason for that is because they’re just beautiful and rare,” he told TODAY.com. “They’re off in the distance. The whole point is that there really is no other side to that, and it’s something that’s leading us on. It’s a metaphor for hope and belief.”

Scientifically speaking, a rainbow is an arc of several colors seen in rain or spray opposite the sun and centered around the shadow of your head, according to “The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in Art, Myth and Science.” Optically, rainbows are distorted images of the sun caused by light being reflected and refracted through raindrops.

But there’s much more to it than that. Here are seven colorful facts you didn’t know about rainbows.

1. Kermit was wrong when he sang “rainbows are visions, but only illusions” in the song “The Rainbow Connection”: They are indeed visions, but not illusions. “A rainbow is very real in the sense that it’s an image that you can photograph,” explained research professor Raymond L. Lee Jr. of the U.S. Naval Academy, co-author of “The Rainbow Bridge.” “Anything that can be photographed is not an illusion.” To be more technically accurate, “The Rainbow Connection” should say, “Rainbows are images but certainly not objects.” (Lyrically, however, Kermie wins on this one.)

2. There really is gold at the end of the rainbow. Well, sort of. According to Lee, the brightest, most spectacular rainbows tend to occur during thunderstorms or other heavy rainfalls that have a lot of big drops in them. When the sun’s rays pass through these drops at the base of a rainbow, they shine brightly and are more colorful. “Surely, that bright golden glow would yield up some riches,” he said, “but like all bad jokes, you’ll never get there.”

There is some gold at the end of the rainbow in a figurative sense as well, Michaelis added. “That’s a metaphor for, if you keep following your vision of what’s on the horizon that there really is a pot of gold,” he said. “There really are the riches of having a life that has meaning and joy.”

3. Each of your eyes sees a different rainbow. Just as no two people see exactly the same rainbow, even if they’re standing next to each other, the few inches between your eyes make a difference in what you are viewing. The same is true if you are following a rainbow while driving in the car — look first with one eye and then the other, and you’ll see a different state of rainfall, making the rainbow change appearance.

Michaelis added that your eyes are involved from a psychological standpoint as well: “The words that people use to describe depression involve the word ‘dark’ or ‘darkness.’ That’s sort of the internal experience of going through hard times,” he said. “And when you’re there, when you’re in that period of time, it can feel really endless. And when you see a rainbow, especially when you’re going through hard times, it’s a reminder that there are other times ahead if you can train your eyes up and out instead of down and in.”

4. Triple rainbows do exist (and so do quadruples!) You’ve just never seen them and likely never will see them. In 2011, Lee caused controversy in the scientific community when his research, funded by the National Science Foundation, showed that tertiary or quaternary rainbows — long believed to be invisible — could actually be seen under the right set of circumstances. Lee’s study showed that with a very dark cloud as a background and either not too big a range of drop sizes or really torrential rain, a tertiary rainbow could appear. Previously, in more than 250 years of research, there were only four credible sightings, he said, none of which had any photographic evidence.

5. Rainbows can be bad omens. Forget all of the usual associations like sunshine, hearts, unicorns and other things that delight 9-year-old girls; many cultures believe rainbows are signs of trouble.

“The story line about hope and promise for the future is pretty much a Judeo-Christian one,” Lee said, adding, “We are the beneficiaries of a culture that thinks nature isn’t going to show us something colorful and ultimately dangerous. Older cultures were not sure.” There are many kinds of rainbow demons, some associated with the thunder and lightning that accompany rainbow-generating storms.

In Europe and North America, storms tend to move eastward and rainbows follow them as “something colorful and beautiful, associated as a sign of salvation or a rescue from the perils that have just passed over you.” But in Australia, where geography works differently, the Aboriginal view was more attuned to the power of nature. “If you’re on the receiving end of natural disasters, you tend to have a less sunny view of whatever the sign is that you’re seeing,” Lee explained. “In the case of the rainbow, the natural world has just gotten through doing something violent, and you may not be the better for the episode.”

Also, some cultures believe that pointing at a rainbow brings bad luck, Lee added, “because it has such power. You can’t touch it, [so if you] point at it, you’re messing with the divine — and the divine will make you pay.”

Find out what’s happening in your neck of the woods: TODAY Weather

6. Rainbows just might be powerful enough to make a he into a she. Lee said various cultures hold forth that rainbows are able to reverse sexuality from whatever is deemed societally normal. “In Venezuela, the rainbow was a biologically unproductive entity,” he said. “The rainbow serpent from Australia is androgynous … it can change sex at will, a pretty remarkable thing.”

Hungarian folklore and other European mythology have similar beliefs, and a rainbow is also portrayed in the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text, with complementary male and female aspects. “There are all kinds of strange sexual goings-on that are associated with the rainbow,” Lee said.

7. Not only can you sing a rainbow, you can make a rainbow. Unless you live in Hawaii, with its frequent showers and broken clouds, chances are your rainbow viewings are few and far between. But Lee has a foolproof way of catching some Roy G. Biv rays of your very own.

Turn your back so you are directly opposite the sun (you’ll know when you see the shadow of your head in front of you). Using a garden hose with a nozzle, spray some water about 40 degrees from the shadow of your head and you should see an arc of color. Lee said that much as you can touch a mirror but not the image in it, you can also touch the spray that’s causing the rainbow — about as close as you can get to actually feeling a rainbow.

If that doesn’t thrill you or the kids, Lee said to look for natural rainbows when weather conditions are right and your shadow is longer than you are tall. And if you’re in a window seat of a plane or scaling a high mountain, you may get the treat of viewing an entire circle of rainbow.

Adrienne Mand Lewin is a freelance writer who wore a wrist-to-wrist rainbow shirt in her fifth-grade photo. She always orders rainbow sprinkles on ice cream and is a big fan of Skittles.