Diane Radford, M.D.


November 2, 2011

Everybody loves rainbows— they fascinate us, we stop to admire them, and we soak in their color and magnificence. Songs are written about them. Judy Garland reminded us:

Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high,
There’s a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby

And way up high is the only place to encounter the phenomenon of the circular rainbow. Mountaineers, pilots and airplane passengers may be lucky enough to see one, the complete multicolored ring on the clouds beneath.

We were passengers in a single engine Cessna flightseeing towards the twin peaks of Mount McKinley when I looked out across the vista of surrounding mountains. Below me, on the blanket of clouds beneath us, shimmered the circular spectrum of colors.

Speaking into the mike attached to my headset, I told the pilot what I was seeing.

“That’s called a glory,” she replied.

Glory was an apt name for this phenomenon, it was truly a glorious sight. It was fleeting however, for moments later it was gone as the panorama changed, and our angle to the sun shifted.

I didn’t think I’d see one again. A couple of days later we were flying over the Cook Inlet in a floatplane on our way to view bears at Redoubt Bay. I was admiring a pod of belugas beneath, their bulbous bodies cresting the surface, when once again I saw a circular rainbow on the clouds. This time the shadow of the floatplane was centered within the multihued rings.

“A glory,” I cried, “I’ve seen a glory, and it’s around our shadow.”

“I call it my guardian angel,” said the pilot, who had obviously seen this apparition many times.

There’s a science to rainbows, the physics involves the refraction and dispersion of light. The rays of white light are refracted when they enter the raindrop, which acts as a prism. The light then reflects off the back of the raindrop, and is refracted again as it exits the droplet. The amount of refraction depends on the wavelength of light, blue light being refracted at a greater angle than red light. The dispersion of  white light allows us to see its component colors —red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

All rainbows would appear circular, if the ground did not interfere with the completion of the circle. Circular rainbows can only be seen from high altitude, such as the top of a mountain, from a plane or from the top of a waterfall.

I liken this website to the rainbow: there are two ways to look at it. There is a scientific, medical side (the physics that makes a rainbow), and the creative, artistic side (where we enjoy the beauty of what we see, whether it be paintings or word pictures).  I hope you enjoy all aspects of the website.

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  • http://twitter.com/ttipton1 Tom Tipton

    Just observed a glory on a flight on a small jet from Memphis to St. Louis this weekend. I had always called them ‘ice dogs’ or ‘ice angels,’ but glad to have a new term for them and love the serendipity of reading this post so soon after seeing one. – Tom Tipton

  • http://twitter.com/DrAttai Dr. Deanna Attai

    Diane – what a beautiful post, and beautiful site! I’m looking forward to reading more!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_BBX4FVUDKI72CLXEVCDHON5RK4 barbra

    Diane-love your website! Your post was an introduction to “Glory’s..now I’m fascinated.
    I’ll be looking forward to reading your posts. Thank you
    Barbra DeVore

  • Chris

    You are a great writer. Love the website and look forward to your updates

  • S Ambacher

    My Uncle wrote letters home during WW2, in one of his letter’s he wrote about this phenomenon during one of his glider flights. Claiming that a lot of the veteran pilots have never witnessed such a thing and it was like good luck to witness this happening? He referred to it as an aviator’s or pilot’s cross at the time. Maybe it’s true as later on in the war his B-24 he was piloting went down in the English Channel but he and his crew were quickly rescued by allied ships.

    • http://dianeradfordmd.com Diane Radford

      It certainly brought good luck for your uncle. Thanks for writing.

  • http://www.lisatener.com/ Lisa Tener

    What beautiful photos–thank you for the vicarious experience. I love seeing sunspots–and of course rainbows–but I had never heard of a glory before.

    • http://dianeradfordmd.com Diane Radford

      Thanks Lisa, I appreciate your comment.