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Scientists Find Doublehelix at Center of Milky Way 148

An anonymous reader writes "Astronomers report an unprecedented elongated double helix nebula near the center of our Milky Way galaxy, using observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The part of the nebula the astronomers observed stretches 80 light years in length."
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Scientists Find Doublehelix at Center of Milky Way

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  • It takes light about a second to make a roundtrip from the Earth to the Moon. It takes 8 minutes for light from the Sun to reach the Earth. Light can travel around the Earth 7 times in 1 second.

    While it may seem really fast, when broken down into comprehendable units, light is not really that fast. Sure, it's faster than anything else, but that just means that everything else is pretty slow too.

    So this new nebula is 40 light years across. That's only 10 times the distance from the Earth to our second-cl
    • So this new nebula is 40 light years across.

      No, it's 80 light years across. I don't expect anybody here to RTFA, but at least you could read the summary!

    • So this new nebula is 40 light years across. That's only 10 times the distance from the Earth to our second-closest star. It's like comparing the distance of the Earth to the Sun vs Pluto to the Sun. It may seem intractable, but it's really not that big.

      Well, compared to the vast darkness that stretches between different galaxies, and galaxy clusters... well, yes, it's pretty close in the grand scheme of things.

      - dshaw
    • Err.... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by brian0918 (638904) <brian0918 AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday March 16, 2006 @02:37AM (#14930841)
      You've not really made a clear comparison, as you have compared a measurement involving lightyears (the distance from Earth to Proxima Centauri) to another measurement involving lightyears (the length of the nebula). It would be like comparing an apple to a pea by saying that an orange is about the same size as an apple. You haven't really said anything...

      So you've only given the appearance of an insightful comment... though I'm sure you'll hit +5 in no time.
    • A round trip to the moon takes light more like 3 seconds, actually.
      • Where's that from though? If it is from the edge of the atmosphere as compared with the center of the Earth I'd say the numbers would be slightly different. Although if you were to say how long it REALLY took light to make the trip it would be even longer as it travels faster through a vacumn then air, and even faster through air then solids, and there's no way it's penetrating the crust of the Earth at all, so it would actually take forever to make a round trip.
        • The speed of light in air is only marginally less than in a vacumn (refractive index of air at sea level: 1.0002926, says wikipedia) and the atmosphere drops in pressure very rapidly on a lunar scale. The exosphere starts at, at most 1000km from the earth's surface, and that's the "beginning of the end" of the atmosphere. The moon is around 400000km away. The light is travelling through the atmosphere for only 0.25% of its journey. The difference in light time from the surface of the earth and the exosp
    • Terms like "fast", "slow", or "big" are comparative. They don't mean anything without having a point of reference to compare to. Okay, so everything is slow compared to light, but just saying "light is slow" doesn't mean anything. Compared to speeds of everyday experience light is pretty damn fast. Protons can be considered huge or tiny depending on what you compare them to. Stars can also be considered huge or tiny.
    • by themysteryman73 (771100) on Thursday March 16, 2006 @04:07AM (#14931120)
      The fact is, it doesn't matter how big it is compared to our second-closest star, they're not comparing it to anything, they're saying that they've discovered something new. Noone's ever seen a nebula of this shape before and that's what this story's about. Well, that and the large, strong magnetic field at the centre of the galaxy.

      According to the story, the magnetic field has energy equivalent to 1,000 supernovae, although it's overall magnetic field is 1,000 times weaker than the sun. Therefore this magnetic field must cover an immense volume, if the sun was as powerful as a supernovae (which it's not, so think even larger than this figure...), then that would mean that this magnetic field is coming from a volume 1,000,000 times larger than the sun (something like that anyway, it sounds pretty good :P). Sure there's much, much bigger things in the universe, but, as already stated by others, you can't just say "oh, it's so big!" that's all relative. So, yeh, I could say that it's a really big thing and be shot down by someone telling me it's not so big, or I could give you a figure.

      A magnetic field in the middle of the galaxy over 1,000,000 times the volume of the sun. That's big :P

    • by duffel (779835) on Thursday March 16, 2006 @05:53AM (#14931406)
      While it may seem really fast, when broken down into comprehendable units, light is not really that fast


      You can't think of something incomprehensibly fast in terms of something incomprehensibly large and say you understand it.

      If anything, the fact that it takes a measurable amount of time to traverse the earth-moon distance by something so fast it seems instantaneous to us is just an indication of how far the moon really is away. (385000 km, about ten times further than the circumference of the earth.)

      And the circumference of the earth is a bloody long way. 40000 km. If you were to try walking this distance, it would take you more than a year of continuous walking (no sleep)

      As said, the moon is about ten times further away than that, 385000 km, about ten years of walking.

      The sun is one astronomical unit away. (150 Million kilometers) 4280 years of walking. You'd have to have started walking about the time the first pyramid was built to get there by today.

      The nearest star to the sun is just over 4 light years away (40 Million Million km) One thousand million years of walking. I'm running out of timescales to compare this to now, because human experience doesn't date anywhere near as far back. This timescale now compares roughly to the age of life on earth, and even the age of the earth itself is only about four times as large.

      The nebula in the article is about ten times that size. Ten thousand million years of walking. If you wanted to walk that distance, you'd have to start at a time where neither earth nor sun existed, or would exist for billions of years. The solar system around that time would probably be little more than a localised gravitational aggregation of spinning gas.

      You're right that one could keep going for quite a lot longer. Once one starts considering the distances in the universe, you can think of them only in numbers, they're so huge. The upshot of this is that in a universe where all mayor distances are unimaginably huge, this one is one of them.

      But if you're interested in experiencing these speeds and distances, I'd suggest you give Celestia [shatters.net] a try. It's a 3d simulation that puts you smack bang into the middle of our solar system, and you can whiz around, visit nicely textured planets and even leave and visit other stars, other galaxies. Really beautiful graphics. You can actually move from the earth to the moon at walking speed, or at light speed.
    • "Light can travel around the Earth 7 times in 1 second."

      Does that mean that Superman [imdb.com] can fly faster than light? Is Superman faster than The Flash?
  • by Philip K Dickhead (906971) <folderol@fancypants.org> on Thursday March 16, 2006 @02:40AM (#14930853) Journal
    You will see a large, light absorbing, black monolith - howling Ligeti - in the center of the nebula.
    • "You will see a large, light absorbing, black monolith - howling Ligeti - in the center of the nebula."

      That's fine with me, as long as they don't start chanting "Koyaaaanisqatsiii"...
    • by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Thursday March 16, 2006 @08:52AM (#14931936) Homepage
      If no one gets the joke, the music played in "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite", the last part of 2001: A Space Odyssey was composed by György Ligeti, noted composer born in Dicsöszentmárton (now Tarnaveni), Romania, educated in Budapest, and finally based in Germany and Austria after fleeing Hungary. The first piece played is the Kyrie from his "Requiem for soprano, mezzo-soprano, mixed choir, and orchestra", whose definitive recording according to the composer is on Warner Classics' The Ligeti Project Vol 4 [amazon.com] . The second piece is "Atmospheres" for orchestra, whose definitive recording is on The Ligeti Project Vol 2 [amazon.com] , although the recording used by Kubrick was highly altered and only a portion is heard. In another portion of the film, when Floyd is travelling over the lunar surface to visit the monolith, Ligeti's "Lux Aeterna" for choir a capella is heard.

      Kubrick never asked Ligeti for permission to use his music, and the composer was very unhappy when he found out. He filed a lawsuit against MGM, but later had to settle out of court for a paltry sum (just $4,000 or so). The joke in Steinitz's biography Gyorgy Ligeti: Music of the Imagination [amazon.com] goes that Ligeti once met an MGM employee who said that Ligeti was mad to file the suit in England, where it would go nowhere, instead of in the United States.

  • Not Drawn to Scale (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Thursday March 16, 2006 @02:41AM (#14930858) Homepage Journal
    We're just viruses infecting a milkyway cell.
    • That would be a very short strand of DNA. Most DNA arranges itself into fibrous structures inside the nucleus of the cell. Also, DNA is normally not a flaming mass of gases.
      • Also, DNA is normally not a flaming mass of gases.

        That's all a matter of perspective. If you're much smaller than quarks living in a super-submicrocosm, you might hold a different opinion on that matter.

        (I am of course kidding... but then again...)
  • Latest News (Score:4, Funny)

    by inKubus (199753) on Thursday March 16, 2006 @02:46AM (#14930872) Homepage Journal
    Scientists have discovered a restaurant at the end of the universe.

  • Journal link (Score:5, Informative)

    by brian0918 (638904) <brian0918 AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday March 16, 2006 @02:50AM (#14930886)
    Here [nature.com] is the Nature article abtract:

    "A magnetic torsional wave near the Galactic Centre traced by a 'double helix' nebula"

    The magnetic field in the central few hundred parsecs of the Milky Way has a dipolar geometry and is substantially stronger than elsewhere in the Galaxy, with estimates ranging up to a milligauss (refs 1-6). Characterization of the magnetic field at the Galactic Centre is important because it can affect the orbits of molecular clouds by exerting a drag on them, inhibit star formation, and could guide a wind of hot gas or cosmic rays away from the central region. Here we report observations of an infrared nebula having the morphology of an intertwined double helix about 100 parsecs from the Galaxy's dynamical centre, with its axis oriented perpendicular to the Galactic plane. The observed segment is about 25 parsecs in length, and contains about 1.25 full turns of each of the two continuous, helically wound strands. We interpret this feature as a torsional Alfvén wave propagating vertically away from the Galactic disk, driven by rotation of the magnetized circumnuclear gas disk. The direct connection between the circumnuclear disk and the double helix is ambiguous, but the images show a possible meandering channel that warrants further investigation.
    • ... and if we modulate the subspace fields around the magnetodynamic plasma conduits while simultaneously emitting bursts of tachyon particles, we can spin the double-helix around and make it do a little dance...
    • Sounds like electric universe theory is
      getting another evidence claim.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plasma_cosmology [wikipedia.org]

      Plasma cosmology is a cosmological model based on the electromagnetic properties of astrophysical plasmas. Advocates of plasma cosmology have offered explanations for the large scale structure and evolution of the universe, from galaxy formation to the cosmic microwave background, by invoking electromagnetic phenomena associated with laboratory plasmas. Plasma cosmology is considered by
  • Deep thoughts (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Dr. Eggman (932300) on Thursday March 16, 2006 @02:59AM (#14930922)
    I like the night sky, it always provokes deep thoughts. Like, what if the entire galaxy were just a single cell of a universe sized creature? If we were mere atoms, no not even on a scale that big; perhaps the tiniest of particles of particles of an atom, could we ever fully grasp the universe?

    Could a single cell grasp, by which I mean sense, beyond its tiny neighbors to sense its place in the minute band of cells that make up even large tissues that in turn form the organ; themselves only part of the larger human creature. Still more, that human itself a seemingly insignificant speck in a sea of billions comprising the organism deemed 'Society.' That "insignificant" speck, like the cell that could be a white blood cell or a cancer cell, has the potential to help, harm or affect that gobal entity it is a part of.

    What if the galaxy is not just a cell but an early cell; one undeveloped and still growing. Perhaps its culturing intelligent orders. Intelligents vast, streached thin between its stars; creating networks like those in a cell yet not governed by chemical interaction but in the perhaps equally predictable economics of cultural interaction. A growing cell; incubating intelligence that would mature the galatic cell in a way to interact with neighboring galactic cells, ultimatly tailoring (based on the surrounding galactic cells) the function of this galaxy.

    A galaxy only a fraction of a fraction of a greater whole. A galaxy of intelect unaware beyond simple sensing of the galaxies beyond its neighbors, of its place; perhaps like a human cell. A universal organism ordered by a force greater and more mysterious than comprehensible; not unlike a comparison of the chemical interactions that govern a cell's behavior and the economical interactions that govern society. A Universal organism beyond conventions of the word. A Universal Organism that provokes its own environment and leads its own...


    ...deep thoughts.
    • Re:Deep thoughts (Score:3, Insightful)

      by qazsedcft (911254)
      But as far as science is concerned whatever may be beyond our universe is irrelevant because we have no way of observing it. It's exactly like the falling tree in a forest question.
      • "But as far as science is concerned whatever may be beyond our universe is irrelevant because we have no way of observing it."

        That may be, but I'm confident that some day we'll successfully explore the region north of the north pole...
      • Actually the "does a falling tree make a sound if no-one is there to listen" can be answered quite easily, as you just need to leave behind a recording device.
        • Re:Deep thoughts (Score:2, Insightful)

          by qazsedcft (911254)
          Obviously the recording device counts as "someone listening". The point is whether something that cannot be observed in any way exists at all.
        • It's actually much simpler - yes, it does.

          I've always wondered what kind of inflated ego it would take to believe that a physical characteristic would not exist without the observer. Sure, it's possible that sound is a major scam regularly perpetrated by nature, but that's like debating possibility with a person who uses "assume that anything is possible" as a premise. If the only way to justify something is to assume the conclusion, it's probably a load of crap.

          Consider an alternative scenario: a gun is
        • Re:Deep thoughts (Score:3, Interesting)

          by darthwader (130012)
          This really comes down to terminology. People use the same word to mean different things, and then argue about who's right, without actually realizing that they disagree about the meaning of key words.

          If you define sound as "pressure waves through the air", then the tree makes a sound. If you define sound as "pressure waves striking the eardrum (or other organ of hearing) and producing sensations", then the tree does not make a sound.

          (Interesting, my dictionary includes both meanings, so you can defend ei
      • Re:Deep thoughts (Score:4, Interesting)

        by marcello_dl (667940) on Thursday March 16, 2006 @07:25AM (#14931661) Homepage Journal
        IMHO the falling tree in a forest is a philosophical question. Since we're on /. I'd say that we have no way of observing what's beyond our reality just like a process cannot know for sure if it's running on a perfectly virtualized environment or not. A process cannot know if it's running on a simulator in a completely different architecture than the one it was designed to run in, like Pac Man under MAME.

        So we can define scientifically our representation of the universe in detail but it's still a representation.

        This is not another "Life is a dream" opinion. Comparing reality to something else is pointless because we cannot define reality.
        • Re:Deep thoughts (Score:2, Informative)

          by qazsedcft (911254)
          ...we cannot define reality

          Well, science defines reality as the set of observables. That's why the post I originally replied to is pure methaphysics.
          • pure methaphysics

            Indeed.
          • Well, science defines reality as the set of observables.

            You have just asserted one helluva big assumption, and one that is clearly false.

            Look into the Copenhagen Interpretation that has been a major influence on basic physics and cosmology for about 75 years. Heres teh wpedia: Wikipedia on CI [wikipedia.org]. Or just adopt Paul Dirac's dictum for a successful career in physics: "Shut up and calculate!"

            A loose phrasing of the core of CI is that human limitations in observations are such that the universe cannot be u

          • I chose the wrong term: one can indeed define reality. What I meant is that one cannot know for sure what reality is made of, its intimate nature, by observing from inside reality itself.
        • Mod parent up. He's done a good job of stating the position of a large number of the high energy physicist and cosmologist communities.

    • by Silentnite (815125) <jbontr02.gmail@com> on Thursday March 16, 2006 @03:35AM (#14931023)
      Maybe in order to understand mankind we have to look at that word itself. MANKIND. Basically, it's made up of two separate words "mank" and "ind." What do these words mean? It's a mystery and that's why so is mankind.

      Jack Handey
      Deep Thoughts

      Haha, he makes me chuckle
    • Don't bogart that joint, my friend.
    • Information can't travel faster than the speed of light, so anything that large would have to be incredibly slow. Also the universe is homogenous, and expanding, and doesn't resemble any part of any small or subatomic particle.

      <inhales>

      Oh I mean deeeeep dude, peace.
    • Your speculations, while interesting to read, are unlikely to be taken seriously by scientists due to their high level of compatibitibility with ID.
  • by LiquidAvatar (772805) on Thursday March 16, 2006 @03:50AM (#14931067) Journal

    As the man in black explains to Roland in the first book of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, "The greatest mystery the universe offers is not life but size. Size encompasses life, and the Tower encompasses size... ... For the fish, the lake in which he lives is the universe. What does the fish think when he is jerked up by the mouth through the silver limits of existence and into a new universe..?"

    What great poetry in the universe, that we should gaze out into the infinite deep of space, only to see the same elegent beauty [wikipedia.org] that we see when we probe the mysteries deep within ourselves.

    • "What does the fish think when he is jerked up by the mouth through the silver limits of existence and into a new universe"

      I guess that's why flying fish return to the water, they fear the unknown... Call it intelligent falling.
    • "What great poetry in the universe...

      I know that repeating themes are fantastic for bubblegum pop music and advertising, but poetry that says the same thing over and over should be left in the third grade classroom where it was written.

      With this kind of microcosm/macrocosm symetry it makes me wonder: how boring would it be to reach enlightenment and realize that the universe is really homogenous throughout and it is only ignorance that lets us differentiate the parts.
  • by agent provocateur (704970) on Thursday March 16, 2006 @04:10AM (#14931130) Journal
    or does anyone else see Cthulhu looking out at them from this picture... Come to think about it I see Cthulhu looking at me from most pictures ... oh there he is now...oh my god!! he's everywhere!!!
  • Someone should simulate it! Bonuspoints for combining a double helix, the universe, and a very big supercomputer!
  • Anyone know where one can download a higher resolution version? The website mentioned in the article has a flickr link, but only to a low resolution source.
  • by NickFortune (613926) on Thursday March 16, 2006 @05:58AM (#14931425) Homepage Journal
    What I reckon is, in some higher space, the DoubleHelix Corporation created this galaxy and did the primary gen-eng work on our ecosystem. All they're doing is trademarking their products.

    hmmm... would corporate involvement disqualify this as "intelligent design" I wonder...

  • Now we just need a way to get to the Spiral Path [comics.org] before Baron Karza...
  • Maybe then we can tell how big God is. (Attempt at humour.)
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Hmmmm... that wasn't there before!
  • by lxs (131946) on Thursday March 16, 2006 @07:36AM (#14931682)
    Behold the predictive powers of ROCK!!!

    ...Double helix in the sky tonight
    Throw out the hardware, let's do it right...


    Steely Dan - Aja (1977)
  • I noticed in the picture a bright/large star in the lower half of the picture right along the right edge that appears to have an interesting organization of equally spaced light spots around it. Is this just an artifact of some lense? I can't imagine that this would go unnoticed if it were real ... unless this is all part of an elaborate April Fools prank.
    • It's most likely due to the fact that those stars are much, much closer to us in the forground of the shot and therefore are out of focus. Being out of focus means the flaws in the optics are exagerated. Remember, lens, mirrors, beam splitters, etc all need mounting elements and have edges that bounce or block light. That's what you are seeing in the out of focus stars.
    • What you are seeing is a halo effect common to mirrored lenses. I'm not sure if the cause is extra reflections from the primary or secondary mirror or both, but you wouldn't get that effect from a refracting telescope (which most major observatories are not).

  • who thought of 2001 (and the Simpsons) when I read that headline.
  • A double-helix floating around the nucleus of our galaxy? Eerie coincidence.
  • Which means that our DNA is formed by natural processes and not by a supernatural being.
  • by Cruciform (42896) on Thursday March 16, 2006 @10:30AM (#14932629) Homepage
    So we start out with a strand of DNA, and the camera zooms out, and you see the cells, the organism, skip a few, then the earth, solar syste, galaxy, big DNA helix in space, and start over.

    So if we're just in someone else's cells, how long until we're all wiped out in 'The Big Sneeze'?
    • Powers of Ten (Score:3, Informative)

      You're describing a famous film short "Powers of Ten" by Ray & Charles Eames. I'm too lame to make a clicky link, so here is the URL:

      http://www.powersof10.com/

      Fantastic film, one of the few (good) films that most schoolchildren saw in the 1970's, along with "Our Mister Sun". If there is a better method of presenting The Relative Size of Things in the Universe, I've yet to see it. Ray & Charles were way ahead of their time.

    • Didn't you see Men in Black [imdb.com]? Our galaxy sits in the middle of an alien's marble...
    • Frankly, I'd rather be lung-butter. If only because the impact isn't as bad.
  • And as we zoom back you'll realize we're just part of a microbe on a giant marble being tossed around by an even bigger being.
  • Birkeland Current (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Markus Registrada (642224) on Friday March 17, 2006 @02:47AM (#14939959)
    It makes typical astronomers very uncomfortable when it is mentioned that this is precisely the expected form of an interstellar-scale Birkeland current.

        http://public.lanl.gov/alp/plasma/elec_currents.ht ml [lanl.gov]

    These were predicted by Alfven, and have since been detected indirectly by noting self-segregation by mass of interstellar medium ion Doppler shifts.

        http://public.lanl.gov/alp/plasma/CIV.html [lanl.gov]

    Similar structures have been noted in radio-telescope images, albeit not with such textbook-perfect structure.

        http://public.lanl.gov/alp/plasma/plasma.universe. intro.html [lanl.gov]

    The reason typical astronomers are uncomfortable with this is that the very active field of plasma dynamics is almost entirely neglected in their education. Most are ill-equipped to evaluate or contribute to work involving real-world plasma interactions. They are handicapped not only by this neglect, but by having been taught, early on, an entirely unphysical, if mathematically elegant, substitute for plasma dynamics under which all these phenomena are supposed to be impossible.

    Plasma dynamics, as a field of study, is fundamentally hard because the mathematics that describe actual, natural phenomena is entirely untractable. Practitioners depend on fiendishly difficult scaled-down high-voltage laboratory vacuum-chamber experiments, and absolutely enormous computer simulations. Astrophysicists, by a natural process, are strongly self-selected from among those with a distaste for laboratory work, and a preference for abstract, elegant mathematical constructs, so it's hardly surprising to find them disinclined to fill in the gaps in their education. Instead, certain sorts of evidence are just considered impolite to mention in their company.

    (Incidentally, it is precisely this phenomenon which makes press releases about "geysers" on Enceladus -- and two-mile-wide "lava tubes" on Mars and the moon -- especially comical.)
    • Re:Birkeland Current (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jnik (1733)
      Practitioners depend on fiendishly difficult scaled-down high-voltage laboratory vacuum-chamber experiments, and absolutely enormous computer simulations.

      And, er, observations of space plasmas. I know a couple of astrophysicists who are quite well-versed in plasma physics (one of whom grilled me nicely on my oral qualifier). And the planetary scientists who are dealing with Enceladus and Mars are generally cut more from the space physics cloth than the astrophysics cloth--they probably have somebody doing

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