Helix of another coil

A couple weeks ago I blogged about the Double Helix Nebula, making an educated guess about whether or not it coils the same way as DNA, (like a bolt or screw) or the retrograde Z-DNA. I also predicted that the Intelligent Design crowd was going to latch onto this nebula as some sort of example of design akin to what they believe happened in the origin of life. Was I right? Well, the UCLA scientist who discovered the nebula stepped in on both counts…

So it appears from this two-dimensional image that the nebula being hailed far and wide for its curious structure and similarity to DNA, may in fact be coiling the opposite way as our own DNA does. But those are my speculations – how does it appear to a seasoned astronomer? Professor Mark Morris of UCLA, discoverer of the so-called Double Helix Nebula, responds to my inquiry:

When publication of our double helix picture was assured, I sent the image to an old friend who is a very accomplished biochemist and he had a very similar reaction to you: “That does look like a double helix! It looks left-handed though, and our DNA helix is right- handed. Could your image be accidentally flipped? 🙂 ” I agree with both you and him that it looks like a left-handed double helix, although impressions aren’t reliable here. Note that if our hypothesis is correct — a magnetic wave driven by the rotation of a disk of gas around the central black hole of our Galaxy — it should be a left-handed helix!

Until we study this further, however, we won’t know which strand passes in front of the other. It will be very difficult to tell in fact. If NASA doesn’t cancel the SOFIA Observatory (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy – http://www.sofia.usra.edu/ — an infrared telescope in a 747 that is essentially completed except for the testing stage), then that will be the instrument of choice to go after this. Until then, we won’t get a better picture, not even with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Forget paging the Hubble, let’s make sure SOFIA doesn’t get canceled. It seems ludicrous to cancel a mission that is going to be tested this fall, and could operational soon thereafter. But given the current climate at NASA, I wouldn’t be surprised. However, I don’t think that SOFIA would go without a fight. There’s a lot more public support being mustered for the science-based missions at NASA. Point of fact – at the beginning of my dialogue with professor Morris, the Dawn asteroid mission was put under review, and it was reinstated before we were finished.

So from our limited resolution, it appears that the Double Helix Nebula coils in the left-handed direction, and if the magnetic torsional wave theory about it is correct, then it should indeed be coiling in that direction. So is the name of this nebula official, or can we start calling it the Z-DNA nebula?

There is no official name for the nebula. The International Astronomical Union may assign it a pragmatic name like G00.04+0.70, but catchy names like Double Helix Nebula or Z-DNA Nebula are always informal names that stick only with usage.

We’ll see in 10 years or so what people choose to call this. The discovery paper often has a strong influence on the subsequent usage. “Double Helix Nebula” is a play on the Helix Nebula, which is a long-known, famous planetary nebula. The study of the shapes of planetary nebulae is one of my areas of research, so in a way, I was enjoying making an allusion to the early naming of a nebula which one is now hard-pressed to call a helix, but which is nonetheless a famous object . The name was based on very early photography, but if you look at the current images from HST and elsewhere, you’ll maybe see what I mean.

We may be finding more double helices in other galaxies. Perhaps the generic term for these may evolve into DNA nebulae, but I expect to find both left and right-handed versions.

So it’s official – it’s not official. I would advocate calling this nebula the Z-DNA nebula, if it were not for the historical lesson that we may glean from the Helix Nebula, to which Prof. Morris alludes. It was initially described as being helix-like, based upon the limited photography of the time, whereas today we know it looks nothing like a helix. But because of the first observations, the name Helix Nebula has stuck. So until SOFIA flies and verifies the structure of this interesting nebula, we shouldn’t decide that it must coil one way or the other. Nothing would be worse than calling it the Z-DNA nebula, and finding out that it is actually a right-handed helix, like actual DNA. We’ll leave those mistakes to the creationists.

Speaking of whom, thow have the creationist groups reacted to this unprecedented discovery? The first post comes from the World Views magazine blog, Where after pasting a couple highlights of the discovery, the poster says “Hmmm…wonder what could explain such a phenomenon?” World Views is a “Christian Views” news source, by the way. Some of the comments include Psalms that refer to the heavens, and a few nit-picks about how do they know this or that, and one comments attacks the poster directly saying, duh, the article said magnetic fields explain it. The discussion then goes into how gOD is the creator of this structure, whether directly or indirectly through creating the universe itself. Sounds fine, but that’s religious philosophy, not a scientifically-derived mechanism of formation. But the discussion is pretty level and inoccuous.

Cue the creationist news sources. Prophecy Central zeroes in on the news, putting it in a list of similar topics such as the Noah’s Ark pseudo-news, and anti-Darwinian links, complete with quotes from genesis. What, no quotes for g-err, the designer’s DNA nebula?

Back the Christian News, In Jesus dot com links to the story, highlighting the telltale phrase: “High Degree of Order” – which means “goddidit” in theospeak. The word “order” is indeed a buzzword of the anti-evolution crowd, and when you look at the reactions to this story you’ll find that many more of those kinds of sites will pull this quote out of the article. One might think that because of how anti-evolutionists quote mine to serve a particular purpose, that maybe the article should have been written differently. However, the point about this nebula is that it unlike most observed nebulas in that it has a regular pattern to it, suggesting that it is being influenced by something else – twisting field lines from the incredibly powerful galactic core, of course. So pointing out the order is necessary, and you cannot fault the researchers or journalists for saying it. Yes, this time we must blame the crackpots on the crackpots!

One thing we have to keep in mind, though, is not every religious website that mentions this nebula is reacting in a my-god-made-it kind of way. For some people, a particular religiously-oriented site may be their primary discussion group. As you can see, this forum post is just spreading the good news, the good science news. But we already have an inkling that this doesn’t rotate the same way as DNA. Strange comment alert – what the heck would be the “gravitational differentials” of real DNA?

In the Skepticality forum, there’s a little discussion going on about how people would react to this nebula, whether or not a Bush-appointee planted a photoshopped image, and they ask the question that’s on my mind – WHERE ARE THE RAELIANS?

I combed the Raelian cloning cult resources, news website, and messages of theirs posted on the internet, and still no word from them. Either 1) They have not yet heard about it (doubtful), 2) they are still figuring out what to make of it, or 3) the Raelians have such few resources and little technical savvy that they might get around to it next month or later. Interesting thing to point out – The Raelians had a technology news section before Fox News did. But no Science section.

But I did find one remotely Raelian-esque post, on a blog called Rational Conservative. No mention of aliens, just asking if there’s any significance to a nebula in the shape of DNA. And they posed the question: Intelligent Design? Okay it wasn’t even remotely Raelian-esque. But the Raelians have latched onto intelligent design.

Actually, this is a little more Raelian-esque. A little discussion about the discovery, asking whether or not there could be a message encoded in the nebula just like in DNA. Best quote in the discussion: “Beware of seeing order in things. The Human eye is a great deceiver for seeing order in everything.”

While I’m on the subject of great deceivers, let’s talk about some lesser deceivers at the Uncommon Descent weblog, and their reaction to the Double Helix Nebula. William Dembski, design proponent, posted a link to the news story, and not very long thereafter, guess who showed up to comment about it? None other than Professor Morris who discovered it. He had this to say about them:

The nebula we have found with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope is a remarkable example of something that can be accomodated by the scientific enterprise as readily as we can account for hurricanes. Although there is much to be learned yet about the nebula, what we do know can be well explained in terms of existing and well-supported scientific hypotheses about the Galaxy and its contents. Consequently, I am dismayed that it has been brought up in an ID blog. Logically fitting natural phenomena that display order and/or beauty into the scientific superstructure of self-consistent ideas about the universe about us are what makes science so satisfying, and so meaningful. Not everything is a God-induced miracle.

At first, the contributors put their hands in the air and tried to say that there’s nothing significant about it appearing on their blog. After all, I did say that people post it in their primary online communities. But then the notorious DaveScot chimes in (emphasis mine):

I think you’re being too accomodating to Doctor Morris who appears to have forgotten his place in the scheme of things. We the taxpayers paid for this research including Morris’ time and the instruments he used. We didn’t pay for nor ask for his opinion about whether or not God had anything to do with this nebula’s formation although he’s free to give it in an unofficial capacity on his own time. The data belongs to us as much as does him as we’re all taxpayers and if we want to interpret it as a sign of design in the universe that’s our business.

Ah yes, the taxpayer argument. Well, DaveScot used to work for Dell computers, and I once bought a Dell, so he should do what I say!

The commenters proposed that this was not Morris, (I have verified that it is) one said “If this is Morris, his IQ dropped 40% since March 15 to declare ideas without run-on sentence structure.” Later, he fills his own comment with run-on sentences, bad spelling, and grammar…

Another poster, Red Reader, goes back on the attack:

In other words, what Dr. Morris has really demonstrated here is his complete ignorance of the scientific theory of Intelligent Design. The unspoken assumption of Dr. Morris’ statement is that ID is “God did it supernaturally”.

Actually, when asked how the designer made the flagellum and other such biomolecular systems, design proponent Michael Behe said “In a puff of smoke!” What we see here is a complete misrepresentation of the pseudoscientific concept of intelligent design by one of its suporters.

The main theme of the discussion, besides Morris-bashing, was ‘hey, all we said was that we saw order, we don’t think it was designed.’ That’s a standard appetizer of a buzz-word, followed up by a course of denial. The proof is in the pudding: “I do admire the handiwork.” Because you know, handi-work means ‘the way the spinning magnetic field acted on the clouds of gas,’ and not ‘the way God’s hands worked on it.’

Red State Rabble, however, was right on the money with the dodging discussion over at UD. The first comment on Dembski’s blog said “I love the translucent purpose of order. A smart bioengineer will take these matters to heart. ID has its place.” Clearly, no one suggested that the nebula was designed? Just an innocent post…

As he so often does, Dembski links without commenting, thus providing future deniability. Would it be unreasonable to assume that he sees not only contingency but specified complexity — aka, the hand of God — in that newly discovered mass of interstellar dust and gas? -RSR

From reading Uncommon Descent from time to time, there are many posts put up by Dembski that do not contain any explanation – it is usually implicit.

And finally, a local organization, Grace Valley Christian Center, also posts this new nebula on their website. As I write this, the post has already slid off the list, so I have resurrected it from Google cache:

Double-helix nebula discovered
Scientist says space formation ‘indicates a high degree of order’

There’s the buzz-word again. A note for those who are interested – the GVCC actively hosts intelligent design events once a year here in Davis, inviting proponents of the design hypothesis such as Dembski and Behe. (That’s how I got Behe on my show.) Also, interestingly enough, their public image has recently become mired by accusations of emotional abuse and other such unethical things on the Davis Wiki. Some of them kept trying to erase the testimonies. But the wiki saves everything.

That’s it! The amazing nebula, the reactions, the researcher responding. One of the things I have recently become interested in is not only how science news propagates, but also, the things that prompt the researchers themselves to respond to how their research has been treated by the media. Professor Morris, one last time.

I happen to have a reaction of my own to those who are willing to supplant rationality, facts, and self-consistency with faith, or even to argue that they are equal alternatives, so I was motivated to respond as I did.

Faith is a wonderful trait that should have an important place in our lives, but the arrogant and cynical faith of outspoken ID proponents is retrograde and even potentially harmful.

This newly discovered nebula is simply amazing, and it makes us all wonder what other fantastic shapes may have formed in the cosmos, and that alone has made it a hot news item. However, people see things behind patterns both real and illusory, and project their personal supernatural, philosophical, asthetic, or biological ideas onto them. We find that indeed, besides sheer awe, various creationists have been suggesting, implicitly and explicitly, that the “high degree of order” in this nebula suggest something more complicated than a spinning magnetic field.

Although it evokes the thought of DNA, such a connection is another projection made by our human minds, made more ironic for the creationists in that it is probably coiling in the opposite way as does our DNA. The coil, precise structure, and formation have yet to be confirmed, but it will soon enough. Perhaps the best answer to this question in the World Views post, “Hmmm…wonder what could explain such a phenomenon?” – was the very first response.


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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.