Answer could lie over the rainbow

The light phenomenon means many things to many people

Rainbows are everywhere of late.

Last week I was driving to the office when I noticed a strange rainbow-coloured halo around the sun, along with what appeared to be rainbows forming as mirror images of each other off to the side. The sky was clear though, with no sign of rain.

When I lived on the Prairies, I got used to similar sights in the form of “sun dogs,” small bands of rainbow-coloured light caused by ice crystals in the dry winter air. That didn’t explain last week’s phenomenon. As my colleague Mike Davies later pointed out, the rainbow halo is formed by ice crystals too high up enough in the atmosphere to be seen. The effect is a little unsettling, to say the least.

The rainbow has a long history in different traditions. In Judeo-Christianity, it symbolized God’s covenant with Noah following the flood—a reminder to never again let a flood destroy life on earth. I stumbled across this point years ago when reading Bob Hunter’s account of the early years of Greenpeace, which explained how the environmental group referenced this when naming one of its fleet the Rainbow Warrior.

More recently, the LGBTQ community has adopted the rainbow. For example, in May some Carihi students adorned steps at the school with rainbow colours. Such use dates back to the gay community in San Francisco during the 1970s when artist Gilbert Baker came up with the rainbow flag at the urging of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California. Milk was assassinated 40 years ago. There are different accounts of why Baker chose a rainbow and the numbers of colours used has changed, but after Milk’s death, demand for the rainbow flags soared dramatically.

Rainbows have had meanings in many traditions. For the Greeks, it was considered a path made by the messenger between heaven and earth. In China, it apparently was said to represent the colours of rocks a goddess used to fix a gap in the sky. In some cultures, they were associated with malignant spirits that caused harm.

Oddly, the first to explain what a rainbow really is was a man who mixed belief and science. Theodoric of Freiberg was a 13th-century Dominican theologian, but he seized upon others’ efforts to explain the refraction, reflection and other processes at work whenever we see a rainbow. This I learned on an audiobook the other day, which described his work as the first real scientific experiment in Western Europe.

Maybe there’s some hope in this example. Maybe we can find a way to explain the world with empirical evidence while at the same time not losing the wonder of our metaphors.