|We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out. - Ray Bradbury|
Chapter 11 - Nature:
In discussing the great optical illusions of nature, it appears appropriate to introduce the mirage. This is not due to an error of sense of judgment. The eye sees what is presented but the inversions and other peculiar effects are due to variations in the refractive index of the atmosphere. These variations account for the appearance of "lakes" in arid deserts, of the inverted images of ships and icebergs on the sea and of "pools of water" on pavements.
The refractive index of the atmosphere is continually changing, but the changes are chiefly of two types: (1) those due to irregular heating and (2) those due to normal variation with altitude. The former type are particularly responsible for mirages.
A common type of mirage is illustrated in Fig. 81. This is often visible on deserts where the hot sand causes the adjacent layer of air to expand and therefore, the refractive index to increase. This layer of air then may be considered to operate like an inverted prism. The rays of light close to the earth are bent convex to the earth and the curvature of those higher up may be reversed. The reason that an object may appear double, or as if mirrored by the surface of a nearby pond, is clearly shown in the illustration.
|Fig. 81. - Explanation of a common mirage.|
Similar atmospheric conditions are found sometimes over pavements and over bodies of water. When riding in an automobile up an incline, if one looks closely at the moment the line of sight is just on the level of the pavement, he will often be rewarded by the sight of a mirage. An approaching pedestrian may have no feet (they are replaced by a bit of sky) and the distant pavement will appear to contain pools of water on its surface.
Sometimes on deserts, over ice fields, or on northern seas, mirages are of the inverted type. A horseman or ship may appear suspended in the air in an inverted position. When the density of the air is great enough so that only the upper rays reach the eye, the object will be seen inverted and far above the surface upon which nothing is seen. Many modifications of these types are possible through variations in the refractive indices of various strata of air. Sometimes the air is stratified horizontally and even vertically, which results in magnification as well as other peculiar effects.
As one rides over the desert in a rapidly moving train or automobile these vagaries of nature are sometimes very striking, because the speed of motion will make the effects of the varying refractive indices more marked. A distant foothill may appear to float in the air or to change its shape very rapidly. An island surrounded by quiet air and water may appear like a huge mushroom barely supported by a stem.
Arctic mirages are no less wonderful than those of the hot barren deserts. While traveling along over the ice and snow distant white peaks may assume the most fantastic shapes. At first they may appear flattened like a table-land and then suddenly they may stretch upward like spires. They may shrink then spread like huge mushrooms supported by the stalk-like bases and stretching out laterally. Suddenly they may shoot upward into another series of pinnacles as if another range had suddenly arisen. Such antics may go on for hours as one travels along a frozen valley. Even a change of position of the eyes accompanying a change from erect to lying down may cause remarkable contortions of the distant mountains and one is reminded of the psalmist's query, "Why hop ye so, ye hills?"
Although not an optical illusion but a physical reality, it is of interest in passing to note the colored halo or aureole surrounding the shadows of objects cast by the sun against a cloud, fog, or jet of steam. The most wonderful effects are seen by the aerial traveler over a bank of clouds when the upper sky is clear. For example, the shadow of the aircraft cast by the sun upon a dense layer of clouds is surrounded by a halo or aureole of the colors of the rainbow. The phenomenon is purely optical, involving diffraction of light. A well-known example of this is the "Spectre of the Brocken."
Chapter 11 - Nature:
Apparent Enlargement of Heavenly Bodies at the Horizon
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