News from the world of maths: Aliens under the rainbow

Share this page
Friday, June 01, 2007

Aliens under the rainbow

The geometry that gives rise to rainbows may help scientists to find out whether other planets contain water, which is necessary to sustain life. Rainbows are formed because light rays are bent, or refracted, and scattered as they enter droplets of liquid that hang in the atmosphere. The refraction occurs because light waves are slowed as they enter the droplet — think of a shopping trolley slowing down as you push it onto a lawn at an angle, and changing its direction as a result. The amount by which the light rays are slowed, and hence bent, depends on the liquid's consistency and is measured by its refractive index. Thus, different liquids give rise to rainbows at different angles, a fact that enabled researchers to determine that the clouds of Venus are droplets of concentrated sulfuric acid. Researchers now suggest that the same approach could be used to detect clouds made of liquid water in a planet's atmosphere.

Read more on the ABC News in science website, and find out more about refraction on Plus.

posted by Plus @ 4:12 PM


  • Want facts and want them fast? Our Maths in a minute series explores key mathematical concepts in just a few words.