Great Courses, Great Episodes

The Great Courses offers a number of excellent courses on DVD (also streaming and audio only). Here are my favorite episodes. (Note: This is a work in progress and more entries will be added in the future.)

Course No. 153
Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: Modern Physics for Non-Scientists, 2nd Edition – Richard Wolfson
Lecture 8 – Uncommon Sense—Stretching Time
“Why does the simple statement of relativity—that the laws of physics are the same for all observers in uniform motion—lead directly to absurd-seeming situations that violate our commonsense notions of space and time?”
Lecture 9 – Muons and Time-Traveling Twins
“As a dramatic example of what relativity implies, you will consider a thought experiment involving a pair of twins, one of whom goes on a journey to the stars and returns to Earth younger than her sister!”
Lecture 12 – What about E=mc2 and is Everything Relative?
“Shortly after publishing his 1905 paper on special relativity, Einstein realized that his theory required a fundamental equivalence between mass and energy, which he expressed in the equation E=mc2. Among other things, this famous formula means that the energy contained in a single raisin could power a large city for an entire day.”
Lecture 16 – Into the Heart of Matter
“With this lecture, you turn from relativity to explore the universe at the smallest scales. By the early 1900s, Ernest Rutherford and colleagues showed that atoms consist of a positively charged nucleus surrounded by negatively charged electrons whirling around it. But Rutherford’s model could not explain all the observed phenomena.”
Lecture 19 – Quantum Uncertainty—Farewell to Determinism
“Quantization places severe limits on our ability to observe nature at the atomic scale because it implies that the act of observation disturbs that which is being observed. The result is Werner Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle. What exactly does this principle say, and what are the philosophical implications?”
Lecture 21 – Quantum Weirdness and Schrödinger’s Cat
“Wave-particle duality gives rise to strange phenomena, some of which are explored in Schrödinger’s famous ‘cat in the box’ example. Philosophical debate on Schrödinger’s cat still rages.”

Course No. 730
Symphonies of Beethoven – Robert Greenberg
Lecture 11 – Symphony No. 3—The “New Path”—Heroism and Self-Expression, III
“Lectures 9 through 12 focus on Symphony No. 3, the Eroica Symphony. This key work in Beethoven’s compositional revolution resulted from his crisis of going deaf. Beethoven’s struggle with his disability raised him to a new level of creativity. Symphony No. 3 parallels his heroic battle with and ultimate triumph over adversity. The symphony’s debt to Napoleon is discussed before an analysis.”
Lecture 13 – Symphony No. 4—Consolidation of the New Aesthetic, I
“Lectures 13 through 16 examine Symphony No. 4 in historical context and in its relationship to opera buffa. Symphony No. 4 is the most infrequently heard of his symphonies. We see how it represents a return to a Classical structure. Its framework is filled with iconoclastic rhythms, harmonies, and characteristic motivic developments that mark it as a product of Beethoven’s post-Eroica period.”
Lecture 23 – Symphony No. 7—The Symphony as Dance, I
Lecture 24 – Symphony No. 7—The Symphony as Dance, II
“Lectures 23 and 24 discuss Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with references to the historical and personal events surrounding its composition. The essence of the symphony is seen to be the power of rhythm, and originality is seen to be an important artistic goal for Beethoven.”
Lecture 31 – Symphony No. 9—The Symphony as the World, IV
“The last five lectures are devoted to Symphony No. 9, the most influential Western musical composition of the 19th century and the most influential symphony ever written. We see how this work obliterated distinctions between the instrumental symphony and dramatic vocal works such as opera. Also discussed are Beethoven’s fall from public favor in 1815, his disastrous relationship with his nephew Karl, his artistic rebirth around 1820, his late compositions, and his death in 1827.”

Course No. 759
Great Masters: Robert and Clara Schumann-Their Lives and Music – Robert Greenberg
Lecture 8 – Madness
“In Düsseldorf, Robert was inspired to write the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, along with trios, sonatas, orchestral works, and pieces for chorus and voice and piano. Robert and Clara also met Johannes Brahms there; he became a lifelong friend and source of strength for Clara. In 1854, Robert attempted to drown himself in the Rhine and was taken to an asylum. He died there two years later. Clara managed to sustain the family through her concerts but was dealt even more pain by the early deaths of several of her children.”

Course No. 1257
Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time – Sean Carroll
Lecture 10 – Playing with Entropy
“Sharpen your understanding of entropy by examining different macroscopic systems and asking, which has higher entropy and which has lower entropy? Also evaluate James Clerk Maxwell’s famous thought experiment about a demon who seemingly defies the principle that entropy always increases.”
Lecture 15 – The Perception of Time
“Turn to the way humans perceive time, which can vary greatly from clock time. In particular, focus on experiments that shed light on our time sense. For example, tests show that even though we think we perceive the present moment, we actually live 80 milliseconds in the past.”
Lecture 16 – Memory and Consciousness
“Remembering the past and projecting into the future are crucial for human consciousness, as shown by cases where these faculties are impaired. Investigate what happens in the brain when we remember, exploring different kinds of memory and the phenomena of false memories and false forgetting.”
Lecture 20 – Black Hole Entropy
“Stephen Hawking showed that black holes emit radiation and therefore have entropy. Since the entropy in the universe today is overwhelmingly in the form of black holes and there were no black holes in the early universe, entropy must have been much lower in the deep past.”
Lecture 21 – Evolution of the Universe
“Follow the history of the universe from just after the big bang to the far future, when the universe will consist of virtually empty space at maximum entropy. Learn what is well founded and what is less certain about this picture of a universe winding down.”

Course No. 1280
Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works – Richard Wolfson
Lecture 1 – The Fundamental Science

“Take a quick trip from the subatomic to the galactic realm as an introduction to physics, the science that explains physical reality at all scales. Professor Wolfson shows how physics is the fundamental science that underlies all the natural sciences. He also describes phenomena that are still beyond its explanatory power.”
Special Note: This entire series is outstanding! I will eventually be adding many of the episodes of this course as I rewatch them. (I watched this series before I began keeping track of “best” episodes.)

Course No. 1360
Introduction to Astrophysics – Joshua Winn
Lecture 5 – Newton’s Hardest Problem
“Continue your exploration of motion by discovering the law of gravity just as Newton might have—by analyzing Kepler’s laws with the aid of calculus (which Newton invented for the purpose). Look at a graphical method for understanding orbits, and consider the conservation laws of angular momentum and energy in light of Emmy Noether’s theory that links conservation laws and symmetry.”
Lecture 10 – Optical Telescopes
“Consider the problem of gleaning information from the severely limited number of optical photons originating from astronomical sources. Our eyes can only do it so well, and telescopes have several major advantages: increased light-gathering power, greater sensitivity of telescopic cameras and sensors such as charge-coupled devices (CCDs), and enhanced angular and spectral resolution.”
Lecture 11 – Radio and X-Ray Telescopes
“Non-visible wavelengths compose by far the largest part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Even so, many astronomers assumed there was nothing to see in these bands. The invention of radio and X-ray telescopes proved them spectacularly wrong. Examine the challenges of detecting and focusing radio and X-ray light, and the dazzling astronomical phenomena that radiate in these wavelengths.”
Lecture 12 – The Message in a Spectrum
“Starting with the spectrum of sunlight, notice that thin dark lines are present at certain wavelengths. These absorption lines reveal the composition and temperature of the Sun’s outer atmosphere, and similar lines characterize other stars. More diffuse phenomena such as nebulae produce bright emission lines against a dark spectrum. Probe the quantum and thermodynamic events implied by these clues.”
Lecture 13 – The Properties of Stars
“Take stock of the wide range of stellar luminosities, temperatures, masses, and radii using spectra and other data. In the process, construct the celebrated Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, with its main sequence of stars in the prime of life, including the Sun. Note that two out of three stars have companions. Investigate the orbital dynamics of these binary systems.”
Lecture 15 – Why Stars Shine
“Get a crash course in nuclear physics as you explore what makes stars shine. Zero in on the Sun, working out the mass it has consumed through nuclear fusion during its 4.5-billion-year history. While it’s natural to picture the Sun as a giant furnace of nuclear bombs going off non-stop, calculations show it’s more like a collection of toasters; the Sun is luminous simply because it’s so big.”
Lecture 16 – Simple Stellar Models
“Learn how stars work by delving into stellar structure, using the Sun as a model. Relying on several physical principles and sticking to order-of-magnitude calculations, determine the pressure and temperature at the center of the Sun, and the time it takes for energy generated in the interior to reach the surface, which amounts to thousands of years. Apply your conclusions to other stars.”
Lecture 17 – White Dwarfs
“Discover the fate of solar mass stars after they exhaust their nuclear fuel. The galaxies are teeming with these dim “white dwarfs” that pack the mass of the Sun into a sphere roughly the size of Earth. Venture into quantum theory to understand what keeps these exotic stars from collapsing into black holes, and learn about the Chandrasekhar limit, which determines a white dwarf’s maximum mass.”
Lecture 18 – When Stars Grow Old
“Trace stellar evolution from two points of view. First, dive into a protostar and witness events unfold as the star begins to contract and fuse hydrogen. Exhausting that, it fuses heavier elements and eventually collapses into a white dwarf—or something even denser. Next, view this story from the outside, seeing how stellar evolution looks to observers studying stars with telescopes.”
Lecture 19 – Supernovas and Neutron Stars
“Look inside a star that weighs several solar masses to chart its demise after fusing all possible nuclear fuel. Such stars end in a gigantic explosion called a supernova, blowing off outer material and producing a super-compact neutron star, a billion times denser than a white dwarf. Study the rapid spin of neutron stars and the energy they send beaming across the cosmos.”
Lecture 20 – Gravitational Waves
“Investigate the physics of gravitational waves, a phenomenon predicted by Einstein and long thought to be undetectable. It took one of the most violent events in the universe—colliding black holes—to generate gravitational waves that could be picked up by an experiment called LIGO on Earth, a billion light years away. This remarkable achievement won LIGO scientists the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.”

Course No. 1456
Discrete Mathematics – Arthur T. Benjamin
Lecture 8 – Linear Recurrences and Fibonacci Numbers
“Investigate some interesting properties of Fibonacci numbers, which are defined using the concept of linear recurrence. In the 13th century, the Italian mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, called Fibonacci, used this sequence to solve a problem of idealized reproduction in rabbits.”
Lecture 15 – Open Secrets—Public Key Cryptography
“The idea behind public key cryptography sounds impossible: The key for encoding a secret message is publicized for all to know, yet only the recipient can reverse the procedure. Learn how this approach, widely used over the Internet, relies on Euler’s theorem in number theory.”
Lecture 16 – The Birth of Graph Theory
“This lecture introduces the last major section of the course, graph theory, covering the basic definitions, notations, and theorems. The first theorem of graph theory is yet another contribution by Euler, and you see how it applies to the popular puzzle of drawing a given shape without lifting the pencil or retracing any edge.”
Lecture 18 – Social Networks and Stable Marriages
“Apply graph theory to social networks, investigating such issues as the handshake theorem, Ramsey’s theorem, and the stable marriage theorem, which proves that in any equal collection of eligible men and women, at least one pairing exists for each person so that no extramarital affairs will take place.”
Lecture 20 – Weighted Graphs and Minimum Spanning Trees
“When you call someone on a cell phone, you can think of yourself as a leaf on a giant ‘tree’—a connected graph with no cycles. Trees have a very simple yet powerful structure that make them useful for organizing all sorts of information.”
Lecture 22 – Coloring Graphs and Maps
“According to the four-color theorem, any map can be colored in such a way that no adjacent regions are assigned the same color and, at most, four colors suffice. Learn how this problem went unsolved for centuries and has only been proved recently with computer assistance.”

Course No. 1495
Introduction to Number Theory – Edward B. Burger
Lecture 12 – The RSA Encryption Scheme
“We continue our consideration of cryptography and examine how Fermat’s 350-year-old theorem about primes applies to the modern technological world, as seen in modern banking and credit card encryption.”
Lecture 22 – Writing Real Numbers as Continued Fractions
“Real numbers are often expressed as endless decimals. Here we study an algorithm for writing real numbers as an intriguing repeated fraction-within-a-fraction expansion. Along the way, we encounter new insights about the hidden structure within the real numbers.”
Lecture 24 – A Journey’s End and the Journey Ahead
“In this final lecture, we take a step back to view the entire panorama of number theory and celebrate some of the synergistic moments when seemingly unrelated ideas came together to tell a unified story of number.”

Course No. 1802
The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know – Joshua Winn
Lecture 4 – Pioneers of Planet Searching

“Chart the history of exoplanet hunting – from a famous false signal in the 1960s, through ambiguous discoveries in the 1980s, to the big breakthrough in the 1990s, when dozens of exoplanets turned up. Astronomers were stunned to find planets unlike anything in the solar system.”
Special Note: This entire series is outstanding! I will eventually be adding most of the episodes of this course as I rewatch them. (I watched this series before I began keeping track of “best” episodes.)

Course No. 1830
Cosmology: The History and Nature of Our Universe – Mark Whittle
Lecture 3 – Overall Cosmic Properties

“The universe is lumpy at the scale of galaxies and galaxy clusters. But at larger scales it seems to be smooth and similar in all directions. This property of homogeneity and isotropy is called the cosmological principle.”
Lecture 4 – The Stuff of the Universe
“The most familiar constituents of the universe are atomic matter and light. Neutrinos make up another component. But by far the bulk of the universe—96%—is dark energy and dark matter. The relative amounts of these constituents have changed as the universe has expanded.”
Lecture 6 – Measuring Distances
“Astronomers use a ‘distance ladder’ of overlapping techniques to determine distances in the universe. Triangulation works for nearby stars. For progressively farther objects, observers use pulsating stars, the rotation of galaxies, and a special class of supernova explosions.”
Lecture 8 – Distances, Appearances, and Horizons
“Defining distances in cosmology is tricky, since an object’s distance continually increases with cosmic expansion. There are three important distances to consider: the emission distance, when the light set out; the current distance, when the light arrives; and the distance the light has traveled.”
Lecture 10 – Cosmic Geometry – Triangles in the Sky
“Einstein’s theory of gravity suggests that space could be positively or negatively curved, so that giant billion-light-year triangles might have angles that don’t add up to 180°. This lecture discusses the success at measuring the curvature of the universe in 1998.”
Lecture 11 – Cosmic Expansion – Keeping Track of Energy
“Has the universe’s rate of expansion always been the same? You answer this question by applying Newton’s law of gravity to an expanding sphere of matter, finding that the expansion was faster in the past and slows down over time.”
Lecture 12 – Cosmic Acceleration – Falling Outward
“You investigate why the three great eras of cosmic history—radiation, matter, and dark energy—have three characteristic kinds of expansion. These are rapid deceleration, modest deceleration, and exponential acceleration. The last is propelled by dark energy, which makes the universe fall outward.”
Lecture 13 – The Cosmic Microwave Background
“By looking sufficiently far away, and hence back in time, we can witness the ‘flash’ from the big bang itself. This arrives from all directions as a feeble glow of microwave radiation called the cosmic microwave background (CMB), discovered by chance in 1964.”
Lecture 22 – The Galaxy Web – A Relic of Primordial Sound
“A simulated intergalactic trip shows you the three-dimensional distribution of galaxies in our region of the universe. On the largest scale, galaxies form a weblike pattern that matches the peaks and troughs of the primordial sound in the early universe.”
Lecture 24 – Understanding Element Abundances
“The theory of atom genesis in the interiors of stars is confirmed by the proportions of each element throughout the cosmos. The relative abundances hardly vary from place to place, so that gold isn’t rare just on earth, it’s rare everywhere.”
Lecture 27 – Physics at Ultrahigh Temperatures
“This lecture begins your investigation of the universe during its first second, which is an immense tract of time in nature. To understand what happened, you need to know how nature behaves at ultrahigh energy and density. Fortunately, the physics is much simpler than you might think.”
Lecture 29 – Back to the GUT – Matter and Forces Emerge
“You venture into the bizarre world of the opening nanosecond. There are two primary themes: the birth of matter and the birth of forces. Near one nanosecond, the universe was filled with a dense broth of the most elementary particles. As temperatures dropped, particles began to form.”
Lecture 30 – Puzzling Problems Remain
“Although the standard big bang theory was amazingly successful, it couldn’t explain several fundamental properties of the universe: Its geometry is Euclidean, it’s smooth on the largest scales, and it was born slightly lumpy on smaller scales. The theory of cosmic inflation offers a comprehensive solution.”
Lecture 31 – Inflation Provides the Solution
“This lecture shows how the early universe might enter a brief phase of exponentially accelerating expansion, or inflation, providing a mechanism to launch the standard hot big bang universe. This picture also solves the flatness, horizon, and monopole problems that plagued the standard big-bang theory.”
Lecture 33 – Inflation’s Stunning Creativity
“All the matter and energy in stars and galaxies is exactly balanced by all the negative energy stored in the gravitational fields between the galaxies. Inflation is the mechanism that takes nothing and makes a universe—not just our universe, but potentially many.”
Lecture 34 – Fine Tuning and Anthropic Arguments
“Why does the universe have the properties it does and not some different set of laws? One approach is to see the laws as inevitable if life ever evolves to ask such questions. This position is called the anthropic argument, and its validity is hotly debated.”

Course No. 1866
The Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy – Bradley E. Schaefer
Lecture 10 – Origins of Western Constellations
“The human propensity for pattern recognition and storytelling has led every culture to invent constellations. Trace the birth of the star groups known in the West, many of which originated in ancient Mesopotamia. At least one constellation is almost certainly more than 14,000 years old and may be humanity’s oldest surviving creative work.”

Course No. 1878
Radio Astronomy: Observing the Invisible Universe – Felix J. Lockman
Lecture 5 – Radio Telescopes and How They Work
“Radio telescopes are so large because radio waves contain such a small amount of energy. For example, the signal from a standard cell phone measured one kilometer away is five million billion times stronger than the radio signals received from a bright quasar. Learn how each of these fascinating instruments is designed to meet a specific scientific goal—accounting for their wide variation in form and size.”
Lecture 7 – Tour of the Green Bank Observatory
“The Green Bank Observatory is located within the 13,000-acre National Radio Quiet Zone straddling the border of Virginia and West Virginia. Come tour this fascinating facility where astronomers discovered radiation belts around Jupiter, the black hole at the center of our galaxy, and the first known interstellar organic molecule, and began the search for extra-terrestrial life.”
Lecture 8 – Tour of the Green Bank Telescope
“At 17 million pounds, and with more than 2,000 surface panels that can be repositioned in real time, this telescope is one of the largest moveable, land-based objects ever built. The dish could contain two side-by-side football fields, but when its panels are brought into focus, the surface has errors no larger than the thickness of a business card. Welcome to this rare insider’s view.”
Lecture 9 – Hydrogen and the Structure of Galaxies
“Using the laws of physics and electromagnetic radiation, astronomers can ‘weigh’ a galaxy by studying the distribution of its rotating hydrogen. But when they do this, it soon becomes clear something is very wrong: A huge proportion of the galaxy’s mass has simply gone missing. Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of dark matter, which we now believe accounts for a whopping 90 percent of our own Milky Way.”
Lecture 10 – Pulsars: Clocks in Space
“In the mid-1960s, astronomers discovered signals with predictable periodicity but no known source. In case these signals indicated extraterrestrial life, they were initially labeled LGM, Little Green Men. But research revealed the source of the pulsing radiation to be neutron stars. Learn how a star with a diameter of only a few kilometers and a mass similar to that of our Sun can spin around hundreds of times per second.”
Lecture 11 – Pulsars and Gravity
“A pulsar’s spin begins with its birth in a supernova and can be altered by transfer of mass from a companion star. Learn how pulsars, these precise interstellar clocks, are used to confirm Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves by observations of a double-neutron-star system, and how we pull the pulsar signal out of the noise.”
Lecture 12 – Pulsars and the 300-Foot Telescope
“Humans constantly use radio transmission these days, for everything from military communications to garage-door openers. How can scientists determine which signals come from Earth and which come from space? Learn how the 300-foot telescope, located in two radio quiet zones, was built quickly and cheaply. It ended up studying pulsars and hydrogen in distant galaxies, and made the case for dark matter.”
Lecture 16 – Radio Stars and Early Interferometers
“When radio astronomers discovered a sky full of small radio sources of unknown origin, they built telescopes using multiple antennas to try to understand them. Learn how and why interferometers were developed and how they have helped astronomers study quasars—those massively bright, star-like objects that scientists now know only occur in galaxies whose gas is falling into a supermassive black hole.”
Lecture 18 – Active Galactic Nuclei and the VLA
“The need for a new generation of radio interferometers to untangle extragalactic radio sources led to the development of the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico. With its twenty-seven radio antennas in a Y-shaped configuration, it gives both high sensitivity and high angular resolution. The VLA provided a deeper and clearer look at galaxies than ever before, and the results were astonishing.”
Lecture 19 – A Telescope as Big as the Earth
“Learn how astronomers use very-long-baseline interferometry (VLBI) with telescopes thousands of miles apart to essentially create a radio telescope as big as the Earth. With VLBI, scientists not only look deep into galactic centers, study cosmic radio sources, and weigh black holes, but also more accurately tell time, study plate tectonics, and more—right here on planet Earth.”
Lecture 20 – Galaxies and Their Gas
“In visible light, scientists had described galaxies as ‘island universes’. But since the advent of radio astronomy, we’ve seen galaxies connected by streams of neutral hydrogen, interacting with and ripping the gases from each other. Now astronomers have come to understand that these strong environmental interactions are not a secondary feature—they are key to a galaxy’s basic structure and appearance.”
Lecture 21 – Interstellar Molecular Clouds
“In the late 1960s, interstellar ammonia and water vapor were detected. Soon came formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and the discovery of giant molecular clouds where we now know stars and planets are formed. With improvements in radio astronomy technology, today’s scientists can watch the process of star formation in other systems. The initial results are stunning.”
Lecture 22 – Star Formation and ALMA
“With an array of 66 radio antennas located in the high Chilean desert above much of the earth’s atmosphere, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is a radio telescope tuned to the higher frequencies of radio waves. Designed to examine some of the most distant and ancient galaxies ever seen, ALMA has not only revealed new stars in the making, but planetary systems as well.”
Lecture 23 – Interstellar Chemistry and Life
“Interstellar clouds favor formation of carbon-based molecules over any other kind—not at all what statistical models predicted. In fact, interstellar clouds contain a profusion of chemicals similar to those that occur naturally on Earth. If planets are formed in this rich soup of organic molecules, is it possible life does not have to start from scratch on each planet?”
Lecture 24 – The Future of Radio Astronomy
“Learn about the newest radio telescopes and the exhilarating questions they plan to address: Did life begin in space? What is dark matter? And a new question that has just arisen in the past few years: What are fast radio bursts? No matter how powerful these new telescopes are, radio astronomers will continue pushing the limits to tell us more and more about the universe that is our home.”

Course No. 1884
Experiencing Hubble: Understanding the Greatest Images of the Universe – David M. Meyer
Lecture 5 – The Cat’s Eye Nebula – A Stellar Demise
“Turning from star birth to star death, get a preview of the sun’s distant future by examining the Cat’s Eye Nebula. Such planetary nebulae (which have nothing to do with planets) are the exposed debris of dying stars and are among the most beautiful objects in the Hubble gallery.”
Lecture 7 – The Sombrero Galaxy – An Island Universe
“In the 1920s, astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered the true nature of galaxies as ‘island universes’. Some 80 years later, the telescope named in his honor has made thousands of breathtaking pictures of galaxies. Focus on one in particular—an edge-on view of the striking Sombrero galaxy.”
Lecture 8 – Hubble’s View of Galaxies Near and Far
“Hubble’s image of the nearby galaxy NGC 3370 includes many faint galaxies in the background, exemplifying the telescope’s mission to establish an accurate distance scale to galaxies near and far—along with the related expansion rate of the universe. Discover how Hubble’s success has led to the concept of dark energy.”
Lecture 10 – Abell 2218 – A Massive Gravitational Lens
“One of the consequences of Einstein’s general theory of relativity is evident in Hubble’s picture of the galaxy cluster Abell 2218. Investigate the physics of this phenomenon, called gravitational lensing, and discover how Hubble has used it to study extremely distant galaxies as well as dark matter.”

Course No. 3130
Origin of Civilization – Scott MacEachern
Lecture 36 – Great Zimbabwe and Its Successors
“Few archaeological sites have been subjected to the degree of abuse and misrepresentation sustained by Great Zimbabwe in southeastern Africa. Nevertheless, this lecture unpacks the intriguing history of this urban center and the insights it can provide into the development of the elite.”

Course No. 3900
Ancient Civilizations of North America – Edwin Barnhart
Lecture 12 – The Wider Mississippian World
“After the fall of Cahokia, witness how Mississippian civilization flourished across eastern North America with tens of thousands of pyramid-building communities and a population in the millions. Look at the ways they were connected through their commonly held belief in a three-tiered world, as reflected in their artwork. Major sites like Spiro, Moundville, and Etowah all faded out just around 100 years before European contact, obscuring our understanding.”
Lecture 13 – De Soto Versus the Mississippians
“In 1539, Hernando de Soto of Spain landed seven ships with 600 men and hundreds of animals in present-day Florida. Follow his fruitless search for another Inca or Aztec Empire, as he instead encounters hundreds of Mississippian cities through which he led a three-year reign of terror across the land-looting, raping, disfiguring, murdering, and enslaving native peoples by the thousands.”
Lecture 19 – The Chaco Phenomenon
“Chaco Canyon contains the most sophisticated architecture ever built in ancient North America—14 Great Houses, four Great Kivas, hundreds of smaller settlements, an extensive road system, and a massive trade network. But who led these great building projects? And why do we find so little evidence of human habitation in what seems to be a major center of culture? Answer these questions and more.”
Lecture 24 – The Iroquois and Algonquians before Contact
“At the time of European contact, two main groups existed in the northeast—the hunter-gatherer Algonquian and the agrarian Iroquois. Delve into how the Iroquois created the first North American democracy as a solution to their increasing internal conflicts. Today, we know much of the U.S. Constitution is modeled on the Iroquois’ “Great League of Peace” and its 117 articles of confederation, as formally acknowledged by the U.S. in 1988.”

Course No. 4215
An Introduction to Formal Logic – Steven Gimbel
Lecture 8 – Induction in Polls and Science
“Probe two activities that could not exist without induction: polling and scientific reasoning. Neither provides absolute proof in its field of analysis, but if faults such as those in Lecture 7 are avoided, the conclusions can be impressively reliable.”

Course No. 7210
The Symphony – Robert Greenberg
Lecture 24 – Dmitri Shostakovich and His Tenth Symphony

“Dmitri Shostakovich was used and abused by the Soviet powers during much of his life. Somehow, he survived—even as his Tenth Symphony made dangerously implicit criticisms of the Soviet government.”

Course No. 7261
Understanding the Fundamentals of Music – Robert Greenberg
Lecture 9 – Intervals and Tunings

“Resuming our focus on pitch, we will turn once more to Pythagoras, and his investigation into what is now known as the overtone series. This paves the way for an examination of intervals, the evolution of tuning systems, and an introduction to the major pitch collections.”

Course No. 7270
The Concerto – Robert Greenberg
Lecture 13 – Tchaikovsky
“Excoriated by colleagues and critics alike, Tchaikovsky’s concerti ultimately triumphed to become cornerstones of the repertoire. This lecture explores his Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat Minor, op. 23; Piano Concerto no. 2 in G Major, op. 44; and Violin Concerto in D Major, op. 35, arguably his single greatest work and one of the greatest concerti of the 19th century.”
Lecture 14 – Brahms and the Symphonic Concerto
“Johannes Brahms’s compositional style is a synthesis of the clear and concise musical forms and genres of the Classical and Baroque eras, and the melodic, harmonic, and expressive palette of the Romantic era in which he lived. This lecture examines in depth his monumental Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat Major, op. 83.”

Course No. 30110
England, the 1960s, and the Triumph of the Beatles – Michael Shelden
Lecture 8 – The Englishness of A Hard Day’s Night
“In summer 1964, the cinematic Beatles vehicle A Hard Day’s Night broke almost every rule in Hollywood at the time. Professor Shelden reveals what lies underneath the film’s surface charm and musical numbers: an overall attitude of irreverence and defiance in the face of authority, and a challenge for audiences to think for themselves.”
Lecture 12 – Hello, Goodbye: The End of the 1960s
“In their last years together, all four of the Beatles seemed headed in new directions as they grew up—and apart. Nevertheless, witness how these final years brought a range of sounds, including protest songs, mystic melodies, anthems of friendship, and an iconic double album called simply, The Beatles, but better known as the ‘White Album.'”

Shostakovich Piano Concertos

I’d like to introduce you to another fine classical music recording I’ve recently discovered, but first a little editorializing about classical recordings in general.

I hope the day never comes when physical media in the form of compact discs (or something similar) is completely replaced by digital downloads or streaming. The booklet enclosed with physical media always provides useful and often enlightening information about the music, and there’s artistry on the front and back covers. Having been in COVID-19 lockdown for nearly a year now, I yearn for real human interaction without technology instead of “virtual everything”. And I say that as a person who has made his career as a computer programmer. What does that have to do with music on a CD? Well, perhaps I’ve digressed, but let me just say a recording is a poor substitute for a live performance, and a digital file is a poor substitute for a CD. Happily, I have read recently that classical music is keeping the CD alive as popular music largely goes the way of the computer file. As for CD packaging, I much prefer a well-made jewel case (with a hub whose teeth don’t break off easily) over the cardboard digipak that is seeing more frequent use, including the Shostakovich disc I will be briefly discussing here.

I much prefer discs that feature works of just one composer. Not only are they more easily filed and retrieved, but, more importantly, they often introduce you to some lesser-known works of a composer. Something I have learned over my many years of listening to classical music recordings is that there are many first-rate lesser-known works of composers, both famous and not-so-famous. There is a lot of great music out there, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed, even after a lifetime of listening!

This disc featuring Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya (who now lives in Germany) is one such happy occasion. It features the two piano concertos of Dmitri Shostakovich (himself a fine pianist), plus two of his lesser-known works for two pianos (joined here by Ivan Rudin), Concertino for Two Pianos, op. 94, and Tarantella for Two Pianos, both of which were unknown to me. An all-Shostakovich disc!

Alpha Classics 203

This disc is a delight from beginning to end. Anna Vinnitskaya plays Shostakovich as well as anyone I have heard, with great intensity, energy, and precision during the rhythmic passages, and with great beauty and sensitivity during the legato passages. The Kremerata Baltica is really outstanding in the two piano concertos, as is the quality of the recording. The latter is much above average, I would say, perfectly balanced and articulated. Vinnitskaya herself conducts the orchestra from the piano in the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, op. 35, where she is joined by a fine trumpet soloist, Tobias Willmer. Omer Meir Wellber skillfully conducts the orchestra in the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, op. 102, and the Kremerata Baltica is joined by the Winds of the Staatskapelle Dresden in a perfect union and performance.

Anna Vinnitskaya grew up with the music of Shostakovich in her household, and developed an early and deep appreciation of his music and it shows throughout this recording. She performed his Second Piano Concerto for the first time at the age of eleven, and now at age 37, I have no doubt she is one of the finest performers of the piano music of Shostakovich in the world today. I hope I will have the opportunity to hear her play either of the Shostakovich piano concertos in the concert hall one day soon. Or any other piano works by Shostakovich, for that matter!

One thing I have become acutely aware of after decades of listening to classical music is the enormous difference there can be between live performances or recordings of the same work. Tempo can be one obvious difference. I tend not to like music that is on the fast end of the tempo continuum for a given work—I like to “savor” the notes. But anything as complex and nuanced as an orchestral palette can lend itself to many different interpretations. Yes, the notes are the same, but how a piece is played can make the difference between enthusiasm for the work or complete indifference.

Prokofiev’s Last Symphony

Photograph of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. Dated 1950.

Sergei Prokofiev was truly one of the most remarkable composers of the 20th century. His signature disjunct melodies and quirky, perky compositional style is so interesting and unique that his music is instantly recognizable, even today. When critics complain that the wellspring of current musical idioms has become exhausted or derivative, along comes a composer like Prokofiev who surprises everyone and does something completely different. That is why I believe that even within established musical forms it is possible to invent something completely new and exciting—it just doesn’t happen very often.

Regrettably, no English-language documentary about the life and music of Prokofiev has ever been produced. While we wait for someone to do that, perhaps Robert Greenberg might add another excellent installment to his “Great Masters” series for The Great Courses by profiling Sergei Prokofiev in eight 30-minute episodes as he did for Shostakovich, Brahms, and others.

Sergei Prokofiev composed his last completed work, the Symphony No. 7, between December 1951 and July 1952 at the age of 60-61. Its first public performance in Moscow on October 11, 1952 would be the last public performance Prokofiev would attend. He died less than five months later.

Dmitri Shostakovich attended the premiere, and quickly sent a letter of congratulations to Prokofiev, “I wish you at least another hundred years to live and create. Listening to such works as your Seventh Symphony makes it much easier and more joyful to live.” Shostakovich would attend Prokofiev’s funeral in March 1953.

Iconic photo of the three greatest 20th-century Soviet composers, together. Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), and Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978). Dated 1940.

The most inspired recording I have ever heard of Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony is by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra with Andrew Litton conducting. Even though I was already familiar with this work, listening to this performance was like hearing the work for the first time. This interpretation is intimate and compelling.


The last years of Prokofiev’s life were difficult ones. His health was deteriorating and Stalin’s terrible regime was a constant threat and source of anxiety. Official disapproval had led to a life of poverty for Prokofiev.

With that as a backdrop, Prokofiev was eager that his new symphony would be well received by the authorities as well as the public, hoping that it would earn him a First Class Stalin Prize—he needed the money. But like Shostakovich, Prokofiev took his symphonies seriously, pouring his heart and soul into them while cleverly embedding what he wanted to say musically in a way that would elude the authorities with their limited musical sophistication and intelligence.

Prokofiev even wrote two endings for the symphony. The “real” ending and a contrived ending to please the authorities and help him win the prize. (He did not win the hoped for Stalin Prize, but he was posthumously awarded the Lenin Prize for this symphony in 1957.)

Prokofiev told his friend, the young cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, “Slava, you will live much longer than me, and you must take care that this new ending never exists after me.” As Andrew Huth writes in the liner notes, “Both versions of the ending are included on this disc so that listeners can judge the very different effect each makes.” Track 9 is the final movement of Symphony No. 7 played again with the alternative ending that Prokofiev wrote to please the authorities.

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) with Sergei Prokofiev

Scythia Sweet

One of the enjoyable aspects of recording asteroids passing in front of stars (we call them asteroid occultations) is the interesting names of some of the asteroids. This month, Bob Dunford, Steve Messner, and I had two double-chord events across the asteroid 1306 Scythia, discovered in this month of 1930 by Soviet astronomer Grigory Neujmin (1886-1946).

The name 1306 Scythia immediately brought to mind a favorite piece of music, the Scythian Suite—surely one of the most unusual and otherworldly compositions by Sergei Prokofiev, or anyone else for that matter.

A quick look at the entry for 1306 Scythia in the 5th edition of Dictionary of Minor Planet Names by Lutz D. Schmadel (1942-2016) quickly confirmed my suspicion that the subject matter of both asteroid and musical composition is the same.

Named for the country of the ancient Scythians comprising parts of Europe and Asia now in the U.S.S.R. in regions north of the Black sea and east of the Aral sea.

In the wee hours of Friday, July 12, Bob Dunford in Illinois and I in Wisconsin observed only the second asteroid occultation of 1306 Scythia (and the first since 2014). The predicted path is shown below.

Predicted shadow path of the asteroid 1306 Scythia from the star Tycho 5189-597-1 (UCAC4 414-136241) on 12 July 2019 UT.

Bob, who was observing at Naperville, observed a 4.3-second dip in brightness as the asteroid covered the star between 8:23:46.203 and 8:23:50.531 UT, and I, observing at Dodgeville, observed a 1.3-second event between 8:24:01.783 and 8:24:03.054. Our light curves are shown below.

Bob Dunford’s light curve of the 1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT, using a 14-inch telescope.
David Oesper’s light curve of the 1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT, using a 12-inch telescope.

Here’s a map showing our observing locations relative to the predicted path.

1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT – Predicted Path and Observer Locations

Here’s the profile showing the chords across the asteroid.

1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT – Asteroid Profile and Chords

Just four days later, both Bob Dunford and I had a high probability event of the same asteroid passing in front of a different star, and this time we were joined by Steve Messner. Bob and Steve both got positives! Unfortunately, I was clouded out.

Predicted shadow path of the asteroid 1306 Scythia from the star TYC 5188-573-1 on 16 July 2019 UT.
1306 Scythia / Tycho 5188-573-1 event of 16 July 2019 UT – Predicted Path and Observer Locations
1306 Scythia / Tycho 5188-573-1 event of 16 July 2019 UT – Asteroid Profile and Chords

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote the Scythian Suite in 1915 when he was 24 years of age. Even at that young age, Prokofiev already showed great talent and originality.

Sergei Prokofiev, circa 1918

Here are some excerpts of the Scythian Suite performed by the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Stanisław Skrowaczewski. This is a 1983 recording (Vox Box CD3X 3016). The movement descriptions are based on those given in Wikipedia.

1st movement: Invocation to Veles and Ala – barbaric and colorful music describing the Scythians’ invocation of the sun.

Some of the music you’ve heard in the original “Star Trek” certainly was inspired by this.
Alien landscape music
Alien landscape music #2

2nd movement: The Alien God and the Dance of the Evil Spirits – as the Scythians make a sacrifice to Ala, daughter of Veles, the Alien God performs a violent dance surrounded by seven monsters.

Best to observe this nasty dance from a distance…
This certainly reminds me of Dmitri Shostakovich, but he was only 9 years old at the time and just beginning to compose!

3rd movement: Night – the Alien God harms Ala; the Moon Maidens descend to console her.

This beautiful movement of many moods begins peacefully, then moves to a section of descending lines that might remind you of “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, but this was being written at the exact same time as the Scythian Suite! Next the music takes an ominous turn, and then returns to a little night music, but more a travel through interstellar or intergalactic space rather than a terrestrial night.

4th movement: The Glorious Departure of Lolli and the Cortège of the Sun – Lolli, the hero, comes to save Ala; the Sun God assists him in defeating the Alien God. They are victorious, and the suite ends with a musical picture of the sunrise.

Here, now, the conclusion of this remarkable work.

Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. There is nothing else like it in the orchestral repertoire!

Shostakovich – Symphony No. 4

The Fourth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was completed in May 1936, but had to be withdrawn before it was performed due to the withering criticism and scrutiny Shostakovich was at the time receiving from Joseph Stalin and his increasingly repressive government.  This symphony did not receive its first public performance until 1961.  To get a sense of the enormous difficulties Shostakovich had to endure under the Soviet regime—and the extraordinary music of one of the 20th century’s most gifted composers, and indeed the last great symphonist—I highly recommend Robert Greenberg’s eight-part video course, Great Masters: Shostakovich – His Life and Music.

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich

The Fourth Symphony is certainly not one of Shostakovich’s more accessible works, but I want to draw your attention to the remarkable, ethereal conclusion of this symphony that few have ever heard.

My entire Shostakovich collection was lost in the Memorial Day weekend 2015 Houston flood, and I’m gradually trying to replace it.  I am currently listening to all fifteen Shostakovich symphonies in an excellent box set, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007).  Rostropovich was a close friend of Shostakovich.

Here is the final 4m45s of the third and final movement (Largo — Allegro) of the Symphony No. 4 in C minor, op. 43, by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich.  Turn up the volume—after the first couple of seconds, it is all very quiet.  Enjoy!