Finding Beauty in the Little Things: The Science Behind Sunsets

From TJ’s runs to spikeball games in the Circle, I’ve spent time thinking about the little things I miss about Lawrenceville during this remote Winter Term.

From TJ’s runs to spikeball games in the Circle, I’ve spent time thinking about the little things I miss about Lawrenceville during this remote Winter Term. Everybody treasures something different, but I personally find myself missing Lawrenceville sunsets more than anything else. As a day student during the pandemic, I spent more time than usual outdoors, which meant seeing a sunset almost every day. Usually, sunsets are not too spectacular around Lawrenceville—the sky becomes a progressively darker shade of blue until it fades to black—but the good ones have to be the best sunsets I’ve ever seen.

On a particularly chilly evening, my friend and I watched a beautiful sunset through the window of our house, ultimately deciding to brace the cold and view the sunset up close from the flagpole green. Watching the last red-golden rays of the sun stretch above the horizon, I wondered what caused these vividly hued twilights. I was also reminded of both the beauty of sunsets and the cliché of their beauty. Given that anybody with functional eyes can observe sunsets, it’s likely that every interesting quality about them has already been identified, discussed, and over-analyzed—especially by poets. However, my advantage over long-dead writers waxing poetic over the aesthetic perfection of sunsets is the ability to understand what makes them beautiful. I’ve never ascribed to the Romantic idea that scientific understanding somehow detracts from natural beauty; in fact, a good sunset is made all the better knowing what causes it.

Before exploring the science of sunsets, it’s helpful to first understand what makes the sky blue. Sunlight contains all colors of the rainbow, and a phenomenon known as Rayleigh scattering is responsible for the color of the sky. Think of nitrogen and oxygen particles in the sky as little mirrors. These molecules scatter and reflect blue and violet light, which contain the shortest wavelengths out of the colors we can see. These colors do not penetrate directly through and reach the ground; instead, they ricochet off of nitrogen and oxygen molecules, creating the appearance of a blue dome above us. Our eyes aren’t great at picking up violet, which has a higher frequency than blue light. If we were better at that, we would see the sky as purple.

At sunset, sunlight has to pass through a thicker layer of the atmosphere and travel a greater distance to reach us. The higher wavelength light gets scattered out, leaving us with the fiery reds and oranges of sunset. Air is filled with aerosols, like dust and dirt. When water vapor adheres to these aerosols, they swell to a size we can see with our naked eye; as the number and size of aerosols increases, sunsets tend to be more muted and dull-colored.

The time of year and seasonal changes play a significant role in the appearance of sunsets. At the Earth’s middle latitudes, where Lawrenceville is located, November through February produces the most vividly-hued sunsets, resulting from a confluence of atmospheric conditions. Tropospheric aerosols in the lower atmosphere serve as a blanket, blocking light from reaching our eyes. In colder months, there’s less water vapor and therefore less tropospheric aerosols, which means the sunset color appears purer and more vivid. Students tend to retreat into their rooms as the temperature drops, missing Lawrenceville sunsets at their best. While it’s tempting to stay indoors in the winter, I’d recommend at least checking out a few winter sunsets—trust me, it’s worth it.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always admired sunsets, especially the ones at Lawrenceville. Just as understanding the Canada goose’s revival from extinction helps me appreciate them when they fly past, understanding the conjunction of multiple phenomena to create twilight’s vivid hues certainly enhances my appreciation for a nice sunset. As I count down the days until we’re back on campus, I’ve realized that—whether it be TJ’s runs or spikeball games or even sunsets—it’s oftentimes the little things that matter the most.


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