“Rainbows are visions but only illusions” — Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher

August 26, 2010

Rainbow photographed by Beth Williams Liou

This photo of a rainbow was posted on Facebook the other day by Beth Williams Liou. She took it on Long Beach Island in New Jersey. It happens that Pat and I were on the island that day with two of our daughters and our four grandchildren, and were waiting for a table at a restaurant when someone spotted the same rainbow.

First, those of us who were standing outside the crowded restaurant stepped out into the parking lot and looked up at the sight. Then some people who were already seated got up and came out. Even some of the wait staff rushed over to have a glance. There was a lot of excited chatter, and several people were taking pictures of the rainbow with their cell phones. Maybe that’s how Beth Williams Liou caught this image.

As often happens with me, I knew while this event was taking place that I would write a column or homily about it. It turned out to be a column. What immediately struck me was that all of us for whom this rainbow became the center of attention are immersed in a world of seemingly endless technical advances — 3D movies, HDTV, WiFi, Wii, hand-held devices of every description. But we aren’t so jaded yet that we won’t look in awe when nature from time to time reminds us of the source of all genius.

One of the best things about a rainbow beyond its sheer beauty is that it’s a trick nature pulls on us humans. Where we see bands of color, for instance, there actually is a continuous spectrum of light. And the rainbow itself doesn’t really exist at all; it’s only the way our complex but still limited senses and nervous systems perceive the refraction of light passing through tiny drops of moisture. If we try to chase the rainbow, it is never where we look. If we do something else before giving the rainbow our attention,  it disappears.

”We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow,” crabby old Mark Twain wrote, “that the savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.” I don’t know if we were a band of savages on Long Beach Island the other day, but I don’t think any of us was any less impressed by the spectacle overhead because we knew how it was made.


2 Responses to ““Rainbows are visions but only illusions” — Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher”

  1. bronxboy55 Says:

    Richard Feynman, the late physicist, argued that understanding nature on the scientific level can actually enhance one’s appreciation of beauty. You explained it even more eloquently; you can have all the facts and still stand in awe. Great post and great photos.

  2. shoreacres Says:

    Your rainbow reminds me of one of my basic convictions: the truth of something and the facts about that same thing can be quite different.

    And I just have to say: of course the rainbow exists! No, it isn’t permanent. No, you can’t walk up and touch it.But it’s certainly “there”. It’s as real as real can be.

    My grandmother used to tell me rainbows were God’s smiles. Inthis context the analogy is especially apt. What is a smile but the contraction of muscles? It comes, and goes. It can’t be captured or kept. And yet, smiles are real. They affect our lives, our moods. We remember special ones, even after they’re gone.

    Smiles and rainbows are essentially events rather than things, and I could go on forever about that. But I won’t.

    If you’ve never found the Atmospheric Optics site, it’s wonderful. They have a delightful page all about rainbows. I was introduced to the site by a friend who keeps a rainbow journal where he chronicles the times and locations of the various sorts he sees.

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