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.'”

Why Are We Here?

George F. R. Ellis writes in Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology:

9.1.6 The metaphysical options
…there appear to be basically six approaches to the issue of ultimate causation: namely Random Chance, Necessity, High Probability, Universality, Cosmological Natural Selection, and Design. We briefly consider these in turn.
Option 1: Random Chance, signifying nothing. The initial conditions in the Universe just happened, and led to things being the way they are now, by pure chance. Probability does not apply. There is no further level of explanation that applies; searching for ‘ultimate causes’ has no meaning.
This is certainly logically possible, but not satisfying as an explanation, as we obtain no unification of ideas or predictive power from this approach. Nevertheless some implicitly or explicitly hold this view.
Option 2: Necessity. Things have to be the way they are; there is no other option. The features we see and the laws underlying them are demanded by the unity of the Universe: coherence and consistency require that things must be the way they are; the apparent alternatives are illusory. Only one kind of physics is self-consistent: all logically possible universes must obey the same physics.
To really prove this would be a very powerful argument, potentially leading to a self-consistent and complete scientific view. But we can imagine alternative universes! —why are they excluded? Furthermore we run here into the problem that we have not succeeded in devising a fully self-consistent view of physics: neither the foundations of quantum physics nor of mathematics are on a really solid consistent basis. Until these issues are resolved, this line cannot be pursued to a successful conclusion.

Option 3: High probability. Although the structure of the Universe appears very improbable, for physical reasons it is in fact highly probable.
These arguments are only partially successful, even in their own terms. They run into problems if we consider the full set of possibilities: discussions proposing this kind of view actually implicitly or explicitly restrict the considered possibilities a priori, for otherwise it is not very likely the Universe will be as we see it. Besides, we do not have a proper measure to apply to the set of initial conditions, enabling us to assess these probabilities. Furthermore, application of probability arguments to the Universe itself is dubious, because the Universe is unique. Despite these problems, this approach has considerable support in the scientific community, for example it underlies the chaotic inflationary proposal. It attains its greatest power in the context of the assumption of universality:
Option 4: Universality. This is the stand that “All that is possible, happens”: an ensemble of universes or of disjoint expanding universe domains is realized in reality, in which all possibilities occur. In its full version, the anthropic principle is realized in both its strong form (if all that is possible happens, then life must happen) and its weak form (life will only occur in some of the possibilities that are realized; these are picked out from the others by the WAP, viewed as a selection principle). There are four ways this has been pursued.
1: Spatial variation. The variety of expanding universe domains is realised in space through random initial conditions, as in chaotic inflation. While this provides a legitimate framework for application of probability, from the viewpoint of ultimate explanation it does not really succeed, for there is still then one unique Universe whose (random) initial conditions need explanation. Initial conditions might be globally statistically homogeneous, but also there could be global gradients in some physical quantities so that the Universe is not statistically homogeneous; and these conditions might be restricted to some domain that does not allow life. It is a partial implementation of the ensemble idea; insofar as it works, it is really a variant of the “high probability” idea mentioned above. If it was the more or less unique outcome of proven physics, then that would provide a good justification; but the physics underlying such proposals is not even uniquely defined, much less tested. Simply claiming a particular scalar field with some specific stated potential exists does not prove that it exists!
2: Time variation. The variety of expanding universe domains could be realised across time, in a universe that has many expansion phases (a Phoenix universe), whether this occurs globally or locally. Much the same comments apply as in the previous case.
3: Quantum Mechanical. It could occur through the existence of the Everett-Wheeler “many worlds” of quantum cosmology, where all possibilities occur through quantum branching. This is one of the few genuine alternatives proposed to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which leads to the necessity of an observer, and so potentially to the Strong Anthropic interpretation considered above. The many-worlds proposal is controversial: it occurs in a variety of competing formulations, none of which has attained universal acceptance. The proposal does not provide a causal explanation for the particular events that actually occur: if we hold to it, we then have to still explain the properties of the particular history we observe (for example, why does our macroscopic universe have high symmetries when almost all the branchings will not?). And above all it is apparently untestable: there is no way to experimentally prove the existence of all those other branching universes, precisely because the theory gives the same observable predictions as the standard theory.
4: Completely disconnected. They could occur as completely disconnected universes: there really is an ensemble of universes in which all possibilities occur, without any connection with each other. A problem that arises then is, What determines what is possible? For example, what about the laws of logic themselves? Are they inviolable in considering all possibilities? We cannot answer, for we have no access to this multitude of postulated worlds. We explore this further below.
In all these cases, major problems arise in relating this view to testability and so we have to query the meaningfulness of the proposals as scientific explanations. They all contradict Ockham’s razor: we “solve” one issue at the expense of envisaging an enormously more complex existential reality. Furthermore, they do not solve the ultimate question: Why does this ensemble of universes exist? One might suggest that ultimate explanation of such a reality is even more problematic than in the case of single universe. Nevertheless this approach has an internal logic of its own which some find compelling.
Option 5: Cosmological Natural Selection. If a process of re-expansion after collapse to a black hole were properly established, it opens the way to the concept not merely of evolution of the Universe in the sense that its structure and contents develop in time, but in the sense that the Darwinian selection of expanding universe regions could take place, as proposed by Smolin. The idea is that there could be collapse to black holes followed by re-expansion, but with an alteration of the constants of physics through each transition, so that each time there is an expansion phase, the action of physics is a bit different. The crucial point then is that some values of the constants will lead to production of more black holes, while some will result in less. This allows for evolutionary selection favouring the expanding universe regions that produce more black holes (because of the favourable values of physical constants operative in those regions), for they will have more “daughter” expanding universe regions. Thus one can envisage natural selection favouring those physical constants that produce the maximum number of black holes.
The problem here is twofold. First, the supposed ‘bounce’ mechanism has never been fully explicated. Second, it is not clear—assuming this proposed process can be explicated in detail—that the physics which maximizes black hole production is necessarily also the physics that favours the existence of life. If this argument could be made water-tight, this would become probably the most powerful of the multiverse proposals.
Option 6: Purpose or Design. The symmetries and delicate balances we observe require an extraordinary coherence of conditions and cooperation of causes and effects, suggesting that in some sense they have been purposefully designed. That is, they give evidence of intention, both in the setting of the laws of physics and in the choice of boundary conditions for the Universe. This is the sort of view that underlies Judaeo-Christian theology. Unlike all the others, it introduces an element of meaning, of signifying something. In all the other options, life exists by accident; as a chance by-product of processes blindly at work.
The prime disadvantage of this view, from the scientific viewpoint, is its lack of testable scientific consequences (“Because God exists, I predict that the density of matter in the Universe should be x and the fine structure constant should be y”). This is one of the reasons scientists generally try to avoid this approach. There will be some who will reject this possibility out of hand, as meaningless or as unworthy of consideration. However it is certainly logically possible. The modern version, consistent with all the scientific discussion preceding, would see some kind of purpose underlying the existence and specific nature of the laws of physics and the boundary conditions for the Universe, in such a way that life (and eventually humanity) would then come into existence through the operation of those laws, then leading to the development of specific classes of animals through the process of evolution as evidenced in the historical record. Given an acceptance of evolutionary development, it is precisely in the choice and implementation of particular physical laws and initial conditions, allowing such development, that the profound creative activity takes place; and this is where one might conceive of design taking place. [This is not the same as the view proposed by the ‘Intelligent Design’ movement. It does not propose that God tweaks the outcome of evolutionary processes.]
However from the viewpoint of the physical sciences per se, there is no reason to accept this argument. Indeed from this viewpoint there is really no difference between design and chance, for they have not been shown to lead to different physical predictions.

A few comments.

1: Random chance. At first, this strikes one as intellectual laziness, but perhaps it is more a reflection of our own intellectual weakness. More on that in a moment.

2: Necessity. Our intellectual journey of discovery and greater understanding must continue, and it may eventually lead us to this conclusion. But not now.

3: High probability. How can we talk about probability when n = 1?

4: Universality. We can hypothesize the existence of other universes, yes, but if we have no way to observe or interact with them, how can we call this endeavor science? Furthermore, explaining the existence of multiple universes seems even more problematic that explaining the existence of a single universe—ours.

5: Cosmological Natural Selection. We do not know that black holes can create other universes, or that universes that contain life are more likely to have laws of physics that allow an abundance of black holes

First image of a black hole by the Event Horizon Telescope. The object M87* is located at the heart of galaxy Messier 87, about 54 million light years distant. The mass of this supermassive black hole is estimated at 6.5 billion solar masses.

6. Purpose of Design. The presupposition of design is not evidence of design. It is possible that scientific evidence of a creator or designer might be found in nature—such as an encoded message evincing purposeful intelligence in DNA or the cosmic microwave background—but to date no such evidence has been found. Even if evidence of a creator is forthcoming, how do we explain the existence of the creator?

I would now like to suggest a seventh option (possibly a variant of Ellis’s Option 1 Random Chance or Option 2 Necessity).

7. Indeterminate Due to Insufficient Intelligence. It is at least possible that there are aspects of reality and our origins that may be beyond what humans are currently capable of understanding. For some understanding of how this might be possible, we need look no further than the primates we are most closely related to, and other mammals. Is a chimpanzee self-aware? Can non-humans experience puzzlement? Are animals aware of their own mortality? Even if the answer to all these questions is “yes”1, there are clearly many things humans can do that no other animal is capable of. Why stop at humans? Isn’t it reasonable to assume that there is much that humans are cognitively incapable of?

Why do we humans develop remarkable technologies and yet fail dismally to eradicate poverty, war, and other violence? Why does the world have so many religions if they are not all imperfect and very human attempts to imbue our lives with meaning?

What is consciousness? Will we ever understand it? Can we extrapolate from our current intellectual capabilities to a complete understanding of our origins and the origins of the universe, or is something more needed that we currently cannot even envision?

“Sometimes attaining the deepest familiarity with a question is our best substitute for actually having the answer.” —Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe

“To ask what happens before the Big Bang is a bit like asking what happens on the surface of the earth one mile north of the North Pole. It’s a meaningless question.” —Stephen Hawking, Interview with Timothy Ferris, Pasadena, 1985

1 For more on the topic of the emotional and cognitive similarities between animals and humans, see “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves” by primatologist Frans de Waal, W. W. Norton & Company (2019). https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07DP6MM92 .

References
G.F.R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.
[http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0602280]

Lost in Math: A Book Review

I recently finished reading a thought-provoking book by theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. Hossenfelder writes in an engaging and accessible style, and I hope you will enjoy reading this book as much as I did. Do we have a crisis in physics and cosmology? You be the judge. She presents convincing arguments.

The basic premise of Hossenfelder’s book is that when theoretical physicists and cosmologists lack empirical data to validate their theories, they have to rely on other approaches—”beauty”, “symmetry”, “simplicity”, “naturalness“, “elegance”—mathematics. Just because these approaches have been remarkably successful in the past is no guarantee they will lead to further progress.

One structural element that contributes to the book’s appeal is Hossenfelder’s interviews with prominent theoretical physicists and cosmologists: Gian Francesco Giudice, Michael Krämer, Gordon Kane, Keith Olive, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Steven Weinberg, Chad Orzel, Frank Wilczek, Garrett Lisi, Joseph Polchinski, Xiao-Gang Wen, Katie Mack, George Ellis, and Doyne Farmer. And, throughout the book, she quotes many other physicists, past and present, as well. This is a well-researched book by an expert in the field.

I also like her “In Brief” summaries of key points at the end of each chapter. And her occasional self-deprecating, brief, soliloquies, which I find reassuring. This book is never about the care and feeding of the author’s ego, but rather giving voice to largely unspoken fears that theoretical physics is stagnating. And an academic environment hell-bent on preserving the status quo isn’t helping matters, either.

Anthropic Principle

Do we live in a universe fine-tuned for life? If so, is it the only possible universe that would support life? Recent work indicates that there may be more than one set of parameters that could lead to a life-supporting universe.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Is our sense of what is “beautiful” a reliable guide to gaining a deeper understanding of nature? Or does it sometimes lead us astray? We know from history that it does.

In the past, symmetries have been very useful. Past and present, they are considered beautiful

When we don’t have data to guide our theory development, aesthetic criteria are used. Caveat emptor.

Experiment and Theory

Traditionally, experiment and observation have driven theory. Now, increasingly, theory drives experiment, and the experiments are getting more difficult, more expensive, and more time consuming to do—if they can be done at all.

Inflation

The rapid expansion of the universe at the time of the Big Bang is known as cosmic inflation, or, simply, inflation. Though there is some evidence to support inflation, that evidence is not yet compelling.

Mathematics

Mathematics creates a logically consistent universe all its own. Some of it can actually be used to describe our physical universe. What math is the right math?

Math is very useful for describing nature, but is math itself “real”, or is it just a useful tool? This is an ancient question.

Memorable Quotations

“I went into physics because I don’t understand human behavior.” (p. 2)

“If a thousand people read a book, they read a thousand different books. But if a thousand people read an equation, they read the same equation.” (p. 9)

“In our search for new ideas, beauty plays many roles. It’s a guide, a reward, a motivation. It is also a systematic bias.” (p. 10)

On artificial intelligence: “Being unintuitive shouldn’t be held against a theory. Like lack of aesthetic appeal, it is a hurdle to progress. Maybe this one isn’t a hurdle we can overcome. Maybe we’re stuck in the foundations of physics because we’ve reached the limits of what humans can comprehend. Maybe it’s time to pass the torch.” (p. 132)

“The current organization of academia encourages scientists to join already dominant research programs and discourages any critique of one’s own research area.” (p. 170)

Multiverse

The idea that our universe of just one of a great many universes is presently the most controversial idea in physics.

Particles and Interactions

What is truly interesting is not the particles themselves, but the interactions between particles.

Philosophy

Physicists and astrophysicists are sloppy philosophers and could stand to benefit from a better understanding of the philosophical assumptions and implications of their work.

Physics isn’t Math

Sure, physics contains a lot of math, but that math has traditionally been well-grounded in observational science. Is math driving physics more than experiment and observation today?

Quantum Mechanics

Nobody really understands quantum mechanics. Everybody’s amazed but no one is happy. It works splendidly well. The quantum world is weird. Waves and particles don’t really exist, but everything (perhaps even the universe itself) is describable by a probabilistic “wave function” that has properties of both and yet is neither. Then there’s the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and quantum entanglement

Science and the Scientific Method

In areas of physics where experiments are too difficult, expensive, or impossible to do, some physicists seem to be abandoning the scientific method as the central pillar of scientific inquiry. Faith in beauty, faith in mathematics, faith in naturalness, faith in symmetry. How is this any different than religion?

If scientists can evaluate a theory using other criteria than that theory’s ability to describe observation, how is that science?

Stagnation

Some areas of physics haven’t seen any new data for decades. In such an environment, theories can and do run amok.

Standard Model (of particle physics)

Ugly, contrived, ad hoc, baroque, overly flexible, unfinished, too many unexplained parameters. These are some of the words used to describe the standard model of particle physics. And, yet, the standard model describes the elementary particles we see in nature and their interactions with extraordinary exactitude.

String Theory

String theory dates back at least to the 1970s, and its origins go back to the 1940s. To date, there is still no experimental evidence to support it. String theory is not able to predict basic features of the standard model. That’s a problem.

Triple Threat: Crises in Physics, Astrophysics, and Cosmology?

Physics: Sure, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN gave us the Higgs boson, but little else. No new physics. No supersymmetry particles. Embarrassments like the diphoton anomaly. Do we need a bigger collider? Perhaps. Do we need new ideas? Likely.

Astrophysics: We’ve spent decades trying to understand what dark matter is, to no avail. No dark matter particles have been found.

Cosmology: We have no testable idea as to what dark energy is. Plenty of theories, though.


See Hossenfelder’s recent comments on the LHC and dark matter in her op-ed, “The Uncertain Future of Particle Physics” in the January 23, 2019 issue of The New York Times.


The book concludes with three appendices:

  • Appendix A: The Standard Model Particles
  • Appendix B: The Trouble with Naturalness
  • Appendix C: What You Can Do To Help

Hossenfelder gives some excellent practical advice in Appendix C. This appendix is divided into three sections of action items:

  • As a scientist
  • As a higher ed administrator, science policy maker, journal editor, or representative of a funding body
  • As a science writer or member of the public

I’m really glad she wrote this book. As an insider, it takes courage to criticize the status quo.

References
Hossenfelder, S., Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, Basic Books, New York (2018).
Hossenfelder, Sabine. “The Uncertain Future of Particle Physics.” The New York Times 23 Jan 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/23/opinion/particle-physics-large-hadron-collider.html.