Double Rain-no

Posted on 2011/07/11

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Feature Image - Double Rain-no

A few months ago, I was at an art fair at the Science Museum in London.  While browsing, I became interested in a watercolour by David Roberts of the Suez Canal.  This rapidly caught the attention of the dealer who quickly rushed to my side.

With the preamble about to begin, he asked me a few things about the Piranesi etching I had just bought.  I, in turn, asked him about David Roberts, of whom he had a substantial collection.

Pretty pedestrian so far.  It was after about 5 minutes, when his smile grew to the size of a substantial purchase, I realized that I was leading the poor chap on.

I politely told him I had no intention of buying the work and thought I better quickly follow this up with an explanation of why I had at first seemed so interested in it. After a brief biography – physics graduate, teacher, newt-collector – I mentioned that the piece has a curious error.

David Roberts (1847) 'Suez'

‘The colours of the rainbow are the wrong way round,’ I said.

‘Are they?’ he replied.

‘Yes, they are.  Red should be on the outside; not in the middle.’

He paused.  ’Well, I suppose it’s the sort of thing a specialist like you would know about.’

I was very confused by this and felt obliged to say, ’It’s also the sort of thing someone looking at a rainbow would know about.’

It was at that moment I spotted he had 11 copies of this particular watercolour.  Quickly thanking him for his conversation, I made a bid for the tube home.

Sitting on the Piccadilly Line, I dwelt on his strange excuse and felt a melancholy about it.  This then awakened a memory of a similar feeling I had when watching Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ as a small boy.

At this point, now I have admitted I teach physics, you might anticipate a rather dull list of physical inaccuracies to follow.  On the contrary, my past and present self understands the genre of fantasy.  Let me see frequent underwater lightning bolts if it lets King Triton distribute justice.  Give me a talking crab over here, if it pumps up the mirth.  A suspension of Newtonian Mechanics over there, if it makes for a better chase scene.

I suspended disbelief as nimbly as the next 7-year-old.  The film is 85 minutes long, the first 84 of which are to be recommended.

Here is the final minute:

You might have guessed where I’m going with this.  The colours of the rainbow were the wrong way round.  Whereas talking crabs were uncompromisingly essential to the plot, this seemed extraneous and cruel.  My 7-year-old self found these thoughts so distracting that it put a bit of a blot on the climactic finale.

Now, King Triton might be forgiven for getting the colours wrong as his dominion is underwater, where there are no rainbows.  But how could David Roberts and the Disney animators be so unobservant?

For the first part of the question, there might be a straightforward answer.  There are several copies of Roberts’ watercolour without the rainbow.  It is also the case that at the time, many artists would employ women to add the colouring after they had done the inkwork.

How often do you see rainbows in Egypt?  Perhaps less frequently that in England.  The sun is only low in the sky (a condition for a large arc rainbow) either very early morning or late at night.  Rain is infrequent.

If you look again, you notice that the mistake isn’t simply that the colours are reversed.  Red is in the middle, between blue and yellow.  Had the colourist simply never seen a rainbow?  It may have been an unauthorized improvisation.

As for The Little Mermaid, the $40,000,000 budget does not permit the same excuse.  How could they go wrong?

I think the answer is that they hadn’t studied the science.  Once you know a little about the process of a rainbow, you notice more in the phenomena.  Walter Lewin, a physicist at MIT, talks about this in his brilliant lectures on rainbows:

‘We’ve all looked at rainbows.  But have you really seen rainbows?  A very different question.  You have all looked at art.  But very few people have seen art.’

Walter Lewin (2002, June 26) ‘How to Make Teaching Come Alive’

After this, Lewin asks his students fifteen questions about rainbows to demonstrate the distinction.  Try them yourself by checking the ones you know (or think you know) the answer to.  If you want to learn more, and to see rainbows rather than just look at them, watch Lewin’s entire lecture on rainbows.


Walter Lewin: MIT Lecture 8.03 “Vibrations and Waves” Lecture 22 of 23 (2002)

***If you find any more examples of rainbow mistakes in art or anywhere else, please reply below***

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Posted in: Art, Physics, Science