How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Page 1 of 9 (85 Questions and Answers)

330. As long as the sun is to our back, shouldn't the rainbow stay visible; instead of disappearing when we approach it?
If the sky were uniformly filled with water droplets and uniformly illuminated with sunlight, then you would always see the rainbow, no matter where you moved. However it would always appear out in the distance. The light that reaches your eyes as the rainbow comes from a broad range of distances, but it appears to come from pretty far away. As you walked toward this perceived rainbow, you would begin to see light from other raindrops, still farther away. You could never actually "reach" the rainbow. It would just move about with you; always appearing to be in the distance.

331. Can you see out of sunglasses which shade both horizontally and vertically polarized light?
No. Such sunglasses would absorb all light and would appear black. Polarizing sunglasses are designed to absorb only horizontally polarized light; the light associated with glare. There is no reason to absorb vertically polarized light.

332. Does a mirage operate under the same principle as the puddles on a road?
Not exactly. A puddle contains water, which reflects light directly. Light from the blue sky travels toward the puddle and illuminates it. As the light enters the water, with its higher refractive index, part of the light reflects. You see this light when you look at the surface of a puddle. But a mirage involves refraction (bending) of light. As light from the blue sky enters a regions of hot air near the surface, that light bends upward. You again see light from the sky, but bent upward by the air rather than being reflected upward by a surface of water. Since the two appear similar, you interpret the shimmering blue light of a mirage as coming from a pool of water. But it is just hot air.

333. Does air pollution contribute to the blueness of the sky (make it bluer)? Has the sky become more blue with the advent of technology (factories, machinery, etc.)?
Yes. Pollution does tend to make the sky bluer and the sunsets redder. However, pollution also imparts colors directly by absorbing certain wavelengths of light. The orange haze that hovers over cities is often caused by nitrogen oxides, which are simply orange in color and act like pigments to make everything appear orangish. However smoke and dust certainly change the look of the sky by increasing scattering. Natural disasters are even more effective: volcanic eruptions create the most beautiful sunsets of all by tossing vast amounts of dust into the air.

334. Does red or blue light bend more in glass?
Blue light almost always bends more than red light because blue light almost always travels more slowly through glass than does red light. This phenomenon is known as dispersion However, there are some glasses that exhibit anomalous dispersion, where red light travels faster and bends more than blue light. Anomalous dispersion only occurs when there is a resonant absorption of light in the glass, typically because of some impurity atoms or ions in the glass or because of some transition that occurs in the glass itself. While the resonance will only absorb light at one particular wavelength, it alters the propagation of light at nearby wavelengths. At wavelengths just shorter than the absorbed wavelength, light travels anomalously fast through the glass so that it bends less than light that is somewhat redder in color.

335. Does the rainbow go all the way to the ground?
Yes, it forms an arc that extends to the ground. However, any hills or valleys may obscure its visibility or its sunlight, so you often see it truncated or in shadow.

336. How come I never find the pot of gold at the base of the rainbow?
The people who invented that tale were well aware of the impossibility of reaching the rainbow itself. Knowing that the rainbow moves with you, they were free to promise anything about what lies at the base of the rainbow.

337. How do oil spills/spots (i.e. in parking lots and streets) create rainbows?
A thin layer of oil on water creates interference effects, just like those seen in a thin soap film. Sunlight reflects from both the top and the bottom of the oil layer and these two reflections can interfere with one another. If the blue/green wavelengths of light interfere destructively on their way to your eye, you will see the oil layer as red. If the green/red wavelengths of light interfere destructively, you will see the oil layer as blue. How you see the oil layer depends on its thickness and the angles of the light.

338. How do polarizing materials work?
The sheet polarizers that are used in sunglasses or in the demonstrations in class contain molecules that absorb electromagnetic waves of only one polarization. These molecules form long chains that interact with electromagnetic waves only when the electric fields push charge along the lengths of the molecules. In the polarizing sheets, the molecules are all oriented along the same direction so that they all absorb light of the same polarization. The other polarization of light passes through the sheets virtually unscathed. When unpolarized (randomly polarized) light enters one of these sheets, any waves that are polarized along the molecules are absorbed while any that are polarized across the molecules are permitted to pass. About half the light makes it through and that half is polarized across the molecules. If this remaining light is sent through a second polarizing sheet, turned 90° so that the molecules of the second sheet are aligned with the polarization of the light leaving the first sheet, then the remaining light will be absorbed in the second sheet and essentially no light will emerge from the pair of sheets. This arrangement, two polarizers turn 90° with respect to one another, is called "crossed polarizers". It is a useful arrangement for observing materials that rotate polarization by distorting the electric and magnetic fields. If a distorting material is placed between the two crossed polarizers, light from the first polarizer may be altered by the material and thus be able to pass through the second polarizer.

339. How do shadows form?
Light from the sun travels in straight lines (apart from some wave effects called diffraction, that are unimportant in this case). As sunlight passes objects, those objects absorb or scatter the sunlight, leaving regions of space that no longer contain any electromagnetic waves. Regions of space behind the objects contain no sunlight and do not appear illuminated. We perceive those dark, unilluminated regions as shadows.
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