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Waxbows: The Incredible Beauty of a Blown Out Candle

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A candle is more illuminating after it has been blown out.

In 2009, aspiring science photographer Grover Schrayer took a series of photos documenting candle smoke–something that most people have seen before, but never looked close enough at. As his incredible shots revealed, there is so much more to a candle once you blow it out.

Once you extinguish a candle, the light is gone, and a plume of smoke replaces it. The smoke is a grey veil apparently solid enough to twist into the air like a piece of silk. But look closer, as Schrayer did, and you will see something amazing.

A typical wax candle works by drawing melted paraffin up the wick to be combusted. It works well enough to light a room, but the process isn’t completely efficient. Along with the flame comes a mist of innumerable wax droplets.

Up close the mist looks almost like how water vaporizes at the bottom of a waterfall. Indeed, the wax droplets are enough like water that they reflect and refract light to create a very special sight; I call it a waxbow.

A rainbow is the product of physics working for your appreciation of beauty. When the Sun is behind you and a mist of water ahead, light first enters the droplets, is refracted—bent by passing through the water—and then reflected off the back of the droplet like a mirror. Before meeting your eyes, the light is again refracted as it escapes from the oxygen and hydrogen sphere. With light hitting the droplets in front of you at different distances, each curtain of droplets projects a differently colored disk of light towards you. Slightly offset, only at the edges of these disks can you see their differences in refracted light—the colors and shape of the rainbow. (The stacking of offset “disks” of light is also why the inside of a rainbow is usually brighter than the outside. Where the light disks stack up, they recombine into white light, making the inside brighter.)

The same optics and physics that combine to produce a rainbow produce a waxbow in these amazing images. Vaporized wax droplets in fact make up what looks like solid smoke—they are the mist after a rainstorm. A billion floating waxen spheres refracting, reflecting, and again refracting light emanating from behind the camera produce in wax miniature what is so spectacular crossing the sky in water-based macro.

Carl Sagan used to say that science is a candle in the dark. But once the candle is extinguished, science can still be just as illuminating.

Image Credit:

All photos under copyright by, and reproduced with permission from, Grover Schrayer, aka Sea Moon, on Flickr

Kyle Hill About the Author: Kyle Hill is a freelance science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. skyhaskins 11:23 pm 09/11/2013

    NOT” Along with the flame comes a mist of innumerable wax droplets”

    The flame is the product of the combustion of VAPORIZED Paraffin. Sans the heat, the vapor re-condenses into droplets of solid (albeit a very soft and pliable solid – is that a solid?)Paraffin. “wax droplets”

    Just sayin’ the obvious – for clarification’s sake

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  2. 2. aromacandles 4:10 pm 10/14/2013

    The photography is beautiful and what a wonderful job capturing the art of blowing out a candle. We consider time spend buying candles, lightening them and enjoying their scent, but we forget about the beauty about blowing them out. Before all the smoke simmers down, it is nice to enjoy that final scent before calling it a day.

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  3. 3. malbert 8:47 am 01/4/2014

    I wonder, are the colours caused by diffraction rather than refraction?
    Rainbows are the result of light being refracted through drops which are a millimetre or more in diameter. Drops in water mist or smoke are probably too small for the refracted light to result in clearly separated colours. A “cloud bow” is sometimes seen when the water drops are quite small and diffraction spreads the colours so the rainbow is a bow of a single colour, usually white.
    Diffraction will sometimes scatter different colours by different amounts at different angles depending on the droplet size and the angle between the light source, droplet and observer. Diffracted light through an even mist will appear as concentric circles of colours centred on the light.
    On clouds where the droplet size gets smaller towards the edge of the cloud bands of colour running parallel to the cloud edge will sometimes be seen. I think these types of colour displays are caused by diffraction. This looks similar to the bands of colours in your photos.

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  4. 4. RafaelM 2:51 pm 08/25/2014

    In Youtube, there is a good brazilian channel, “Manual do Mundo”, in portuguese, Handbook of the World.
    This video, , shows a experience with blown out candles. There is only portuguese audio and subtitles.

    Link to this

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