I Found a Rainbow At the End of My Hunt For a Vaccine Appointment

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We, humans, are notoriously unreliable, superstitious narrators, always scanning the horizon for signs that validate what our hearts have already told us. Take me, for example. I keep telling people I was vaccinated at Hogwarts’ Manhattan campus under the waxing moon (it was a gibbous moon to be exact). How auspicious!

Ok, so my COVID-vax site was really The City College of New York. But stepping through its big old gothic gates to receive a blessing of science was wondrous, maybe a little spiritual. There was even a rainbow-y halo around that big moon, another lucky omen if you’re hungry for such things.

The City College of New York, Coronavirus Vaccine Site
Photograph by Susanna SchrobsdorffThe entrance to The City College of New York, Manhattan campus which is serving as a coronavirus vaccination site.

I started digging for lore on moons and rainbows and learned that the physics of rainbows doesn’t detract from the mythical place they have in our cultural imaginations. In fact the opposite.

There’s inherent poetry to what happens when rain and sun collide. For example, each one of the billions of droplets in a rainbow conveys a different color when the sun refracts through it. And even if two people are standing next to each other, they are looking at different rainbows comprised of a different set of droplets. (Yes, we each have our own rainbows.)

Just ask Steven Businger, professor and chair of Atmospheric Sciences Department at University of Hawai’i in Manoa. He’s a co-creator of RainbowChase, an app that alerts users when nearby conditions are conducive to rainbow sightings. And after decades in a state where mind-blowing rainbows are a daily occurrence, Businger still pulls over to take photos of them. “I’m completely spiritually gobsmacked by rainbows,” he says.

Most of Businger’s research has to do with hazardous weather, storm evolution, and forecasting. But in this pandemic year, he went on a bit of a glorious tangent to look at the science and mythology behind Hawaii’s prolific rainbows, which he posits are the most spectacular on Earth thanks to the state’s unique geography and weather patterns.

“The Hawaiians thought the rainbow was a path to a higher dimension, and in a real sense, it is,” says Businger. “The rainbow plays with our consciousness, and it’s a beautiful interplay. You look at it, you meditate, and boom, you’re in touch with a higher dimension.”

The idea of the rainbow as a source of life, or a bridge to another plane, is embedded in cultural traditions across the world, from the ancient Greek rainbow goddess Iris to Aboriginal people of the desert’s stories of the Rainbow Serpent and the mythical Norse rainbow bridge to the land of the gods, Bifrost.

In Businger’s March 11 article, “The Secrets of the Best Rainbows on Earth,” he points out that there are more than a dozen different words for rainbow in Hawaiian. There are Earth-clinging rainbows (uakoko), standing rainbow shafts (kāhili), and barely visible rainbows (punakea).

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There is also something called a moonbow, or lunar rainbow, a rare event in which the moon refracts light through water droplets in the air creating a kind of rainbow, similar to what the sun does.

And alas, Businger tells me that the colors I saw in the halo around the moon at City College were in fact, not a moonbow which, like a rainbow, is only seen when the moon or sun is behind you.

What I likely saw on my way to get my coronavirus vaccine was a gorgeous lunar corona. And with that, I rest my mystical case.

 A vertical rainbow, or KÄhili over Hawaii
Photograph courtesy of Steven Businger/University of Hawai’i in ManoaA vertical rainbow, or Kāhili over Hawaii

Unfolded by rainbows are the faces of the flowers.

–Hawaiian proverb

Check out Steven Businger’s interview on Science Friday for more rainbow science.

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Contributor: Susanna Schrobsdorff