A Brief History of the Starbow

Stephen R. Wilk

The rise and fall—and rise again—of an intriguing concept about relativistic space travel.


imageThe diffraction pattern from a faceted silicon plate resembles the original conception of the starbow.

In Frederik Pohl’s 1972 Hugo-award-nominated novella The Gold at the Starbow’s End, a passenger aboard a starship traveling at about a third of the speed of light describes a beautiful effect caused by the relativistic color shifts of the stars. “It’s almost like a rainbow, one of those full-circle rainbows that you see on the clouds beneath you from an airplane,” according to the character. “Nearest the black hole in front the stars have frequency-shifted to a dull reddish color. They go through orange and yellow and a sort of leaf green to the band nearest the black hole in back, which are bright blue shading to purple…”

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