How many colours has the rainbow? This question that has been pondered by artists, scientists
and spiritual leaders for as long as we have records. But in The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in
Art, Myth, and Science, Raymond L. Lee, Jr and Alistair B. Fraser answer: "Quite literally, as
many as you think you see, whether that number is three or three hundred!"
The rainbow has always been a major feature in my love of weather watching, perhaps
highlighted by the golden rainbow I saw late one winter afternoon during my college years. I
often end a letter with "Rainbows" which stems from a Cherokee prayer wishing "May the
rainbow always touch your shoulder." I even used the rainbow in my first company name
"Rainbow Total Environment" and its logo. So I looked toward reading The Rainbow Bridge:
Rainbows in Art, Myth, and Science with great anticipation.
I found this book very informative and entertaining and definitely well written, but perhaps due
to my high anticipation a little disappointing in parts. It is a beautiful book containing more than
100 pictures and 53 diagrams, but I still wanted more photos and paintings, and explanatory
diagrams. Weather watchers are never satisfied!
The authors comprise one of the best possible teams for producing a wide-ranging, cross-discipline book on the rainbow. Raymond L. Lee, Jr earned his baccalaureate degree in art
history and then moved on to a doctorate in meteorology. Lee is currently Adjunct Professor at
the US Naval Academy. His co-author Alistair B. Fraser is Professor of Meteorology at
Pennsylvania State University, one of the best known researchers in atmospheric optics and a
leader in meteorological education. Except for the sections on art and the rainbow, I found it
impossible to distinguish who wrote which portion of the book.
The Rainbow Bridge focuses as much on the term "bridge" as it does on "rainbow" for the
authors use the rainbow to bridge among the worlds of art, science and mythology. They also use
the rainbow to bridge across the changing paradigms in science and art through the ages.
The authors see their goal for this book to bring a fresh look as to how we view the rainbow because:
"The rainbow image is woven into the fabric of both our past and present, but its very familiarity today renders it nearly invisible. For all of us, a fresh look at the rainbow seems well worthwhile, especially given that the bow spans some modern divides between the arts and sciences."
"Our book is intentionally eclectic -- we are offering an illustrated survey of the rainbow's place in science, mythology, and art, not an exhaustive monograph on one of those themes."
The eclectic nature of The Rainbow Bridge is both its strength and a potential weakness in its
appeal. Those with a pure artistic or mythological interest are treated upfront to material related
to their avocation, and hopefully they will stay for the evolution of the science behind the
rainbow because I think it is written clear enough for the non-scientifically trained. Those
interested in the science of the rainbow may get restless having to wait about 100 pages before
science finally bridges into the picture. If you are only interested in the science, consider a jump
to Chapter 4 to start. I think many will return to the earlier chapters later as they see the bigger
My major complaint concerns the book's layout where discussions, whether artistic or scientific,
are often not on the same page as the picture or diagram, and this requires pages flipping back
and forth to follow the discussion. I find this very annoying, and it is a common complaint of
mine with many technical/explanatory books, causing me to wonder if technical editors actually
look at the final mock-ups for such continuity.
I found the book especially good at tackling many misguided myths and misconceptions
concerning rainbows as well as pointing likely sources for other common beliefs. For example,
the much sought after pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is likely inspired by an increased
brightness at the base of the rainbow due to rain showers with large droplets that produce vivid
glowing colours at the rainbow's end.
Highlights in The Rainbow Bridge are many but tone of my favourites is the Field Guide to
Rainbows, which unfortunately is listed in the table of contents simply as Appendix. This
synopsis of rainbow theory answers many frequently asked questions and summarizes the current
knowledge on rainbow theory. The latter is important because, at times, books charting the
historical progressions of scientific understanding often leave the reader a bit unsure of the
current state of the science.
Another favourite part is the beginning of the final chapter Sell It With A Rainbow in which the
authors take a light look at the misuse, misrepresentation and overuse of the rainbow in the
media today. And I raise my hand as one of those miscreants. My original company logo showed
the sun behind the cloud and rainbow, a physical impossibility, since rainbows always form
around the anti-solar point in the sky.
The authors sum up The Rainbow Bridge by writing:
"But rather than leaving you stranded, we hope that we have instead led you to the foot of your own rainbow bridge. The natural rainbow's enduring power to inspire artists, scientists, mythmakers, and the merely curious has never ceased to amaze us. Now, equipped with your own repertoire of rainbow knowledge, you can admire the bow anew, as well as scrutinize those who use it."
"Amid this welter of rainbow symbols, we merely ask readers to pause briefly and admire the rainbow as part of the natural world."
Indeed, Lee and Fraser do just that in The Rainbow Bridge. Its clear, concise writing bridges the
gaps over history and disciplines and left me waiting for the rainy season so that I may once
again study a rainbow in the wild, to look for secondary and supernumerary bows. And I will
look at artistic and media representations of rainbows with a more critical eye, if only to ponder
whether the artist intended a natural rendition or a symbolic one.
"As scientists, teachers and devotees of the rainbow, we will consider it high praise indeed if we inspire readers to look at the rainbow anew."
Doctors, I am inspired.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, ACM
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
September 10, 2001