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The helix

Listen to a lecture about the helix shape to practise and improve your listening skills.

Do the preparation task first. Then listen to the audio and do the exercises.


I'd like to turn now to the object which is the main point of this talk: the helix. This is a fascinating mathematical object which touches many parts of our lives. Movement, the natural world, the manufactured world and our genetic make-up are all connected to the shape of the helix.

A helix is a type of three-dimensional curve that goes around a central cylindrical shape in the form of a spiral, like a corkscrew or a spiral staircase. The helix is a very popular shape in nature because it is very compact. In fact, helices are sometimes referred to as 'nature's space saver'. In architecture too, the helix shape of a spiral staircase is an attractive option in buildings where space is very restricted.

The most renowned type of helix is probably the double helix of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA is made of two helices that curve around each other, a bit like a twisted ladder. DNA contains the genetic information or 'code' that determines the development and functioning of all known living things. The helix shape is a very efficient way to store a long molecule like DNA in the limited space of a cell.

There are different types of helices. Helices can twist clockwise, right-handed, or anti-clockwise, left-handed. An interesting experiment is to hold a clockwise helix, such as a corkscrew, up to a mirror. The clockwise helix appears to become counterclockwise.

We can perceive examples of helices in many areas of our world. Spiral staircases, cables, screws and ropes can be right-handed or left-handed helices. A helix that goes around a cone is called a conical helix. Examples of conical helices are screws or the famous spiral ramp designed by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Helices are also prevalent in the natural world. The horns of certain animals, viruses, seashells and the structure of plants, flowers and leaves can all contain helices. The human umbilical cord is in fact a triple helix.

With the discovery that the helix is the shape of the DNA molecule, it is not surprising that the helix is found in so many areas. It's one of the most natural shapes in nature.

Let's turn our attention now to the mathematical description of the helix. You'll need a pen and paper for the next part of the talk as I am going to give you some variables to write down. Take your time to notice the different ...



Language level

Advanced: C1


Actually, I like science and scientific lectures as well. I often watch them on Youtube (generally TED) or on Facebook. I subscribed to some specific groups for that.
I like to know something new even if I'm not a specialist in this theme and can't fully understand the topic.
I also buy some journals about science and travel. And I never throw them in the bin, despite they occupy someplace on my shelves.
And of course, I often watch my favourite TV channels - Discovery, National Geographic and Animal Planel

Nop I haven’t, well when I was a kid I used to enjoy biology classes but I didn’t like physics or chemistry classes as I think I’m not good enough solving math problems. But I am steel interested on biology and how the body works inside, it’s a fascinating subject. I really like animals and I’d have liked study veterinary medicine but I’m in love with culture, history and so on.

Hello members of The LearnEnglish Team!
I have studied the grammar rules given in this website but i have not been able to find advanced level rules. I would like to know if it exists.

Hello BobMux,

We still haven't finished the Advanced section, but you can find some advanced-level grammar points in the Grammar reference. Not all of the pages there have an advanced section, but some do -- for example, the Present tense page.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

I never watched talks like this neither scientific lecture online, but I watched them on tv and at school. On tv I saw, not a long time ago, an interesting program about the discover of electricity and the progress that human beings have made during ages using it.

Scientific lectures are not the first thing that comes to my mind. However, there are specific topics that I have an interest in. I enjoy talks about how the wires of our brain determine our behaviour, as long as the language used is not too technical because I'm not proficient in science.

Of course. I love biology so much, when I was in school, I always hoped anxiously the class biology because I had a great teacher who taught me very good. She always taught me about DNA and cells. And then I was very interest about it that I studied a career related to biology and health. I remember every day I wrote on my board about biology topic as DNA conjugated, cells, viruses, cell theory among other topics. I love a lot biology because you can find a lot of things about nature, your body, your cells, things that happened in the past or will happen in the future. For sure, it’s a very interesting subject which you can find out and know more about what happens inside of you.


Sometimes, although I am not that interested in scientific lessons , but I like to watch few of them every once and a while .

Yes. I does.