Several weeks ago I had been enjoying some very good black coffee at OJO in Bangsar, KL. As is fairly typical for me, I had been trying to observe the white mists that form just above the coffee. White mists are fascinating, tissue-like clouds that you can often see hovering above the coffee. They form, tear suddenly and then reform into a slightly different pattern. As I was photographing my coffee, I noticed what seemed to be interference patterns on the mists (see picture), just like oil on water, a rainbow-like shimmering over the coffee surface. Yet that explanation did not make sense; interference patterns form because the layer of oil on water has approximately the same thickness as the wavelength of visible light (see more info here). The water droplets that make up the white mists are a good 15 times thicker than the wavelength of light. It is not possible that these mists are producing interference effects, it has to be something else.
Then, last week and back in London, I was walking towards the setting Sun one evening when I saw what looked like a rainbow in a cloud. What caused this and how was it related to what I had seen earlier in my coffee? A short trip to the library later and it was confirmed. What I had seen in the clouds was most likely a Sun-dog. Formed by the refraction of sunlight by ice crystals in the atmosphere, Sun-dogs manifest as bright regions of rainbow. The Sun-dog appeared in cirrus clouds because these are made from the sort of ice crystals that produce brilliant Sun-dogs. These ice crystals are flat and hexagonal so they refract sunlight exactly as does a prism. Just like a prism, red light and blue light will be refracted by differing amounts and so they will appear at different places in the sky. The minimum angle of refraction produces the most intense colouration and, for hexagonal platelets of ice, this occurs at 22º away from the light source.
I do not find degrees a particularly helpful way of thinking about distance but what helped me is that, in terms of the sky, if you hold your outstretched hand out at arms length, the distance from your thumb to the tip of your finger is, approximately, 22º. Hence, if you see a halo around the Sun at about that distance, it is most likely a refraction effect due to ice crystals in the sky and if you see an intense rainbow roughly parallel to the elevation of the Sun, it is very likely to be a Sun-dog.
What does this tell us about the colours in the mists above the coffee? Well, clearly the mists are not made of ice crystals but neither is the ‘rainbow’ colouring as far as 22º from the light source (a light bulb reflected in the coffee). Also, the rainbow is less vivid and, if you look closely, inverted from the rainbow in the clouds. In the cloud, the inner edge of the arc was red and the outer edge blue, in the coffee, the outer edge is more reddish, while the inner is more blue-ish. This is another clue. On the same evening as I had seen the Sun-dog, there was a full moon and around the Moon was a glowing ring, tinged slightly reddish on the outside. The ring was far closer to the Moon than the Sun-dog had been to the Sun. This Moon-ring, and the coffee colouring are the same effect, they are examples of ‘corona’ (literally crown) and they are caused by diffraction of light rather than refraction.
Refraction we are all quite familiar with, it is the bending of a straw in a glass of water as you look through the glass. Diffraction is a little more tricky, but it is a consequence of how the light moves past an object. It can be understood by thinking about how water waves pass objects in a stream (or by playing with the simulation here). The amount that the wave is diffracted depends on both the size of the object and the wavelength of the wave. As blue light has a much shorter wavelength than red light, the blue will be diffracted by a different amount to the red. If the objects diffracting the light are of a similar size (as water droplets in white mists are going to be) a spectrum, or a rainbow of colour will appear around the light source. The more uniform the droplet size, the more vivid the spectrum in the corona. The thin cloud around the Moon that evening was made up of many different sized droplets and so the rainbow effect was very subtle. In contrast, around the reflection of the light bulb in the coffee, the water droplets in the white mist are a fairly similar size and so the spectrum is more vividly seen.
Seeing rainbow effects in the sky (or in the coffee) therefore gives us many clues as to what is in the sky or indeed, levitating above the coffee. Please do send me any pictures you have of coronae around light source reflections in your coffee, or indeed sun dogs if you are fortunate enough to see them*.
* Sun dogs are in fact apparently fairly common, it is more that we have to be attentive to see them.