Rainbows End - Fact and Fiction Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Rainbows End - Fact and Fiction

11 Conversations

Somewhere at the end of a rainbow

Folklore has it that at the end of every rainbow sits an imp1, hammering on a shoe, who can, with persistence and guile, be forced to reveal to his discoverer the whereabouts of a crock of gold.

This is in fact no more than the truth...


As Kermit the Frog wisely sang2,

'Rainbows are visions but only illusions, and rainbows have nothing to hide' –
So we've been told and some choose to believe it; I know they're wrong, wait and see!

There is a lot more to a rainbow than there is to, say, a ghost. It is not illusory. Rainbows have much to reveal: an important truth.

To begin with, rainbows are equally visible to all, can be photographed and are rationally discussable in a way that many 'subjective' experiences are not.

Furthermore, it is not enough of an explanation to say that a rainbow is merely the effect of sunlight on water vapour; the same can be said of how we are able to see clouds, but no-one calls clouds illusory. (Cloud illusions may indeed be more memorable than the real things: still, there is a real cloud, and there is equally real stuff out there wherever a rainbow is seen.)

Rainbows have an observable shape - they are circular (normally seen as an arc of a circle or of two concentric circles). They also have a rationally-discoverable shape in three dimensions, and this is where the insight begins.

There is an End to Every Rainbow

The appearance of a rainbow occurs when the Sun (or another light source) is reflected by many tiny water droplets positioned at a critical angle relative to it and the viewer. The shape of the reflecting droplet-group cannot be flat like the page you are reading (or the screen it's on); it has depth. The depth is not apparent because you are looking 'along its barrel', and therefore in three dimensions the rainbow forms part of a cone.

A cone is an open-ended shape with a single point. Mathematically a cone is complemented by its reverse cone, opening out from the same point to a second open end (circular, infinitely distant). The second cone makes no difference to the present discussion and can be retained in your mental image, or discarded, as you wish.

The Point

Where is the cone's point, when we are looking at a rainbow? Well, it would appear to be inside the eyeball, where the projected rainbow image is focused for communication through the optic nerve into the brain. But this is where the insight really begins: what if we are looking at it with two eyes? Has the rainbow got two ends, or are we seeing two different rainbows?

Stiff-necked scientists may wish to leave the rest of us here and enter the 'two rainbows' lobby. Resist any temptation to join them, as such a decision is damningly short-sighted. If we really see two rainbows, we equally really see two of everything. It is true that two images are formed in normal two-eyed vision, but 'seeing double' is a pathological state, not the normal case. Another level to 'seeing' must be included, beyond eyeball-projection3.


In normal vision, the diverse images from left and right eyes are combined (by the brain) into a single image. Normally the combined image thus assembled, or revealed, is an improvement on the single image available from one eye alone, since it gives us a three-dimensional picture (though curiously, perhaps uniquely, this 3D revelation is withheld in the case of rainbows4).

It is in our consciousness5 that every rainbow we see comes to a single and perfect end. It is also in consciousness that all the values in the universe are situated. For such boundless riches 'a crock of gold' is a poor enough metaphor.

1A Leath-brógán (meaning one-shoed in Irish) whence 'leprechaun' (the 'th' is silent; say 'la-bro-gawn').2The Rainbow Connection, in The Muppet Movie.3Much ink has been spilt over the centuries in argument over what is truly seen: a thing or an image? This Entry shall side with common usage and claim with sufficient confidence that we do see things. The upshot of admitting otherwise would be that we know nothing at all and never will.4Could this be the reason rainbows are popularly relegated to 'illusion' status? They hide their true shape, which only persistence and guile can force them to reveal?5In Consciousness Explained (Little Brown & Company, 1991) Daniel Dennett concludes that consciousness itself belongs in a unique category between fact and fiction.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by


Edited by

h2g2 Editors


h2g2 Entries

External Links

Not Panicking Ltd is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more