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Lecture: Color and Light in Nature
Joanna Gaunder

I am a devotee of beauty, so when I heard about a lecture entitled "Color and Light in Nature," I was there, even though it meant giving up a portion of my Friday night. The lecturer was Dr. David Lynch, a senior scientist at Aerospace Corporation -- not to be confused with the eponymous director of Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. The lecture covered all major phenomena of light and color up in the air, including rainbows, haloes and the green flash.

On April 30, arriving early to Room 140 of the science building, I spoke with Dr. Lynch about his interests. He plays fiddle for a band called the Squirrelheads, he went to Indiana University and the University of Texas, and he has lived in California for 30 years. His professional interests pertain to stars, especially star birthing grounds in faraway galaxies.

Twice a year, Dr. Lynch and his team of astronomers go to Mauna Kea, atop a 14,000-foot mountain in Hawaii, but they don't actually look through the telescope. No one does anymore, because the telescope is too much in demand. Research teams have their equipment hooked up 24/7. So it is at observatories everywhere.

Dr. Lynch does not own a telescope at his home in Topanga. The stars are so far away, he told me, that they don't "resolve." No matter how strong a telescope you use, all you can see when you look at a star is a pinpoint of light -- not a disc with a top and bottom as when you look at the sun.

Dr. Lynch's presentation covered 55 different optical effects, all visible to the naked eye, and tips and tricks for spotting them. The pace was fast. I tried to take thorough notes and still sink into the awesomeness of the slides; it was a balance.

The major topics were rainbows, shadows, water, snow, haloes, sunsets and the green flash. I'll give a brief rundown of each.


There is always a fainter secondary rainbow next to the one you see, because that's how the optics of water droplets work. If the water droplets are the size of peas, there will be supernumerary rainbows (more than just two), but there are always at least two. All rainbows are in fact full circles, but you have to be looking down from above to see all three hundred sixty degrees.

Rainbows are polarized, which means they disappear if you try to look at them sideways through a polarized lens.

Fog washes out the color of a rainbow and you see white rainbows or "fogbows."

Sometimes you can see very faint "cloudbows" out of airplane windows.

When looking for a rainbow, always put the sun at your back.


Next time you see a sunset, notice the line where a band of pink meets a band of blue: the blue is the earth's shadow. Every evening at twilight, the shadow of the earth is cast upon the sky.

Sunbeams filtering out from a cloud, also called Ropes of Maui and Rays of Buddha, are actually parallel shadows that appear to converge (a perspective effect, as with railroad tracks). If you look carefully, you will notice that each "sunbeam" is actually the shadow of a bit of cloud.


“Water,” says Dr. Lynch, “is most interesting when it has waves on it.” Steeper water appears darker. An example from sailing is the “cat’s paw,” a dark patch on the water created when the wind musses the surface tension.

Have you ever seen a glittery patch of moon reflected on water? It consists of tiny rings of light, instantaneously forming and disappearing. “Just keep looking -- they come and go fast. You must expect to see them,” said Dr. Lynch. “And you must have a camera with you.”


Water is blue. Ice is blue. Why is snow white? Because anything, even black coal, looks white if ground up finely enough. Crystals have tiny surfaces and “white” just happens to be the way light reflects off of them. It’s a rule of optics.

However, if you put on enough pairs of dark sunglasses, you can see colors in snow. To demonstrate, Dr. Lynch put up a photo of snow taken with underexposed film. It appeared glittery black with gold flecks.

In a whiteout, due to the way the light reflects off many small crystals, there are no shadows. There is uniform illumination all around. Hence there is no color contrast (because it's all snow) and no brightness contrast (because of the absence of shadows), which means your visual system cannot perceive what you are stepping on, and you could step right off a cliff. Conclusion: don’t walk around in a whiteout!


Put your fist over the sun and take a picture. There’s a good chance you’ll see a white ring around the sun when you get the film back: a 22-degree halo or "common halo." The common halo forms in high, thin, wispy cirrus clouds, which are made of tiny ice crystals. There is also a 46-degree (broader) halo sometimes visible.

The aureole around the sun is white, and the sky is also white, around the horizon. The sky’s blueness varies with distance; it is darkest blue straight overhead. There is a whole science devoted to the way light scatters in the sky.


When Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines, it changed the world's sunsets for a few years until the dust settled. In Southern California, we get a similar effect whenever there is a brush fire. In a smoggy sunset, the earth's atmosphere becomes like an astigmatic lens and the sun appears oval, squashed.

The Green Flash

If you live by the beach, you have probably heard of the “green flash” when the sun sets over the water. You don’t have to live near water to see it, but you do have to be someplace very flat, so the ocean is a good bet. The green flash comes from very top of the sun’s disc, the very last little part to go down. It lasts for about one second, and you have to be sneaky to see it: you have to know ahead of time exactly when to look. If you dazzle your retinas by looking at the sun too soon, you will miss the green flash.

In exceptionally clean air, it is possible to see a blue or even violet flash following the green, but those are rare.

Among the photographs, there were a few shots that used specialized photographic effects, including a great timed exposure of the full moon rising (it actually stays the same size throughout its rise), but most of the slides came from simple point-and-click camera shots -- amazing pictures of ordinary skies. Dr. Lynch emphasized over and over, “These things are easy to see. You just have to look up.”

David Lynch coauthored a book with Bill Livingston called "Color and Light in Nature." It is for sale at Amazon.com. http://www.amazon.com
An excellent page on the Green Flash by Andrew T. Young:

Joanna Gaunder is an Internet and Media Consultant who works both privately and for an international corporation and resides in the Venice area.




The Women’s College Magazine at Santa Monica College
Copyright 2003 Santa Monica College