Information on the Sky
Why is the sky blue?
A clear cloudless day-time sky is blue because molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than they scatter red light. When we look towards the sun at sunset, we see red and orange colours because the blue light has been scattered out and away from the line of sight.The white light from the sun is a mixture of all colours of the rainbow. This was demonstrated by Isaac Newton, who used a prism to separate the different colours and so form a spectrum. The colours of light are distinguished by their different wavelengths. The visible part of the spectrum ranges from red light with a wavelength of about 720 nm, to violet with a wavelength of about 380 nm, with orange, yellow, green, blue and indigo between. The three different types of colour receptors in the retina of the human eye respond most strongly to red, green and blue wavelengths, giving us our colour vision.
Why not violet?
If shorter wavelengths are scattered most strongly, then there is a puzzle as to why the sky does not appear violet, the colour with the shortest visible wavelength. The spectrum of light emission from the sun is not constant at all wavelengths, and additionally is absorbed by the high atmosphere, so there is less violet in the light. Our eyes are also less sensitive to violet. That\'s part of the answer; yet a rainbow shows that there remains a significant amount of visible light coloured indigo and violet beyond the blue. The rest of the answer to this puzzle lies in the way our vision works. We have three types of colour receptors, or cones, in our retina. They are called red, blue and green because they respond most strongly to light at those wavelengths. As they are stimulated in different proportions, our visual system constructs the colours we see.
Response curves for the three types of cone in the human eye
When we look up at the sky, the red cones respond to the small amount of scattered red light, but also less strongly to orange and yellow wavelengths. The green cones respond to yellow and the more strongly-scattered green and green-blue wavelengths. The blue cones are stimulated by colours near blue wavelengths which are very strongly scattered. If there were no indigo and violet in the spectrum, the sky would appear blue with a slight green tinge. However, the most strongly scattered indigo and violet wavelengths stimulate the red cones slightly as well as the blue, which is why these colours appear blue with an added red tinge. The net effect is that the red and green cones are stimulated about equally by the light from the sky, while the blue is stimulated more strongly. This combination accounts for the pale sky blue colour. It may not be a coincidence that our vision is adjusted to see the sky as a pure hue. We have evolved to fit in with our environment; and the ability to separate natural colours most clearly is probably a survival advantage.