AskDefine | Define helical

Dictionary Definition

helical adj : in the shape of a coil [syn: coiling, spiral, spiraling, volute, voluted, whorled, turbinate]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. in the shape of a helix

Extensive Definition

A helix (pl: helices), from the Greek word έλικας/έλιξ, is a three-dimensional, twisted shape. Common objects formed like a helix are a spring, a screw, and a spiral staircase (though the last would be more correctly called helical). Helices are important in biology, as the DNA molecule is formed as two intertwined helices, and many proteins have helical substructures, known as alpha helices.


Helices can be either right-handed or left-handed. With the line of sight being the helical axis, if clockwise movement of the helix corresponds to axial movement away from the observer, then it is a right-handed helix. If counter-clockwise movement corresponds to axial movement away from the observer, it is a left-handed helix. Handedness (or chirality) is a property of the helix, not of the perspective: a right-handed helix cannot be turned or flipped to look like a left-handed one unless it is viewed through a mirror, and vice versa.
Here is another test for handedness: first grip the helix with your right hand and direct your thumb parallel to the axis of the helix. Then curl your fingers toward your palm, following the path of the spiral as if the helix were a set of rails that your fingers must slide along. If this causes your entire hand to move in the same direction as your thumb is pointing, then the helix is right-handed. If not, it is left-handed. Try this test on the left-handed helix in the picture below; in this case, your hand should move in the direction opposite to the way your thumb points.
Most hardware screws are right-handed helices. The alpha helix in biology as well as the A and B forms of DNA are also right-handed helices. The Z form of DNA is left-handed.
A double helix typically consists geometrically of two congruent helices with the same axis, differing by a translation along the axis, which may or may not be half-way.
A conic helix may be defined as a spiral on a conic surface, with the distance to the apex an exponential function of the angle indicating direction from the axis. An example of a helix would be the Corkscrew roller coaster at Cedar Point amusement park.
A circular helix has constant curvature and constant torsion. The pitch of a helix is the width of one complete helix turn, measured along the helix axis.


In mathematics, a helix is a curve in 3-dimensional space. The following three equations in rectangular coordinates define a helix:
x = \cos(t),\,
y = \sin(t),\,
z = t.\,
As the parameter t increases, the point (x,y,z) traces a right-handed helix of pitch 2π about the z-axis, in a right-handed coordinate system.
In cylindrical coordinates (r, θ, h), the same helix is described by:
r = 1,\,
\theta = t,\,
h = t.\,
Another way of mathematically constructing a helix is to plot a complex valued exponential function (e^xi) taking imaginary arguments (see Euler's formula).
Except for rotations, translations, and changes of scale, all right-handed helices are equivalent to the helix defined above. The equivalent left-handed helix can be constructed in a number of ways, the simplest being to negate either the x, y or z component.
The length of a general helix expressed in rectangular coordinates as
t\mapsto (a\cos t, a\sin t, bt), t\in [0,T]
equals T\cdot \sqrt, its curvature is \frac and its torsion is \frac.


In music, pitch space is often modeled with helices or double helices, most often extending out of a circle such as the circle of fifths, so as to represent octave equivalency.
helical in Bulgarian: Винтова линия
helical in Czech: Šroubovice
helical in Danish: Skruelinje
helical in German: Helix
helical in Spanish: Hélice (geometría)
helical in Galician: Hélice (xeometría)
helical in Indonesian: Heliks
helical in Italian: Elica (geometria)
helical in Hungarian: Csavarvonal
helical in Dutch: Helix (wiskunde)
helical in Norwegian: Helix
helical in Norwegian Nynorsk: Heliks
helical in Polish: Linia śrubowa
helical in Portuguese: Hélice (geometria)
helical in Russian: Винтовая линия
helical in Serbian: Хеликс
helical in Serbo-Croatian: Heliks
helical in Swedish: Helix
helical in Chinese: 螺旋

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