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. 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 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. 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. 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. 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.'”

We’re on a Collision Course with a Gas Cloud

Smith Cloud

A giant cloud of mostly hydrogen gas with enough material to make over a million suns is heading towards our Milky Way at a speed of 45 miles per second. Called the Smith Cloud (after Gail Bieger-Smith who discovered it in 1963), this 9,800 × 3,300 ly high velocity cloud (HVC) is about 40,000 ly distant and is expected to slam into our Milky Way galaxy in about 27 million years, causing the birth of many new stars a quarter-way round the galaxy from us.

Smith Cloud is located in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle

The Smith Cloud is located in the constellation Aquila, and has an apparent diameter around 11° across its long axis. It is only visible using radio telescopes (spin-flip transition of neutral atomic hydrogen), or by detecting hydrogen absorption lines Doppler shifted and superimposed upon the spectra of more distant stars that are shining through the cloud.

The origin of the Smith Cloud is unknown. It may have originated within the Milky Way galaxy itself, or it may be extragalactic. The upcoming collision may not be the first time the Smith Cloud has encountered the disc of the Milky Way. It may be embedded in a large halo of dark matter which would have kept the cloud from being completely disrupted during any past encounters.

The Smith Cloud is a great example of an object that would never have been discovered were it not for radio astronomy. Felix J. Lockman, who has published extensively on the Smith Cloud, has created Radio Astronomy: Observing the Invisible Universe for The Great Courses. Dr. Lockman’s engaging lecture style, his clear explanations, and thorough knowledge of the subject matter makes this the perfect introduction to the subject. Highly recommended!

Incidentally, Jay Lockman discovered a region in Ursa Major that is relatively free of neutral hydrogen gas and dust, thus affording a clearer view into the distant universe. It is named, appropriately, the Lockman Hole.

References

Alig, C. et al. “Simulating the Impact of the Smith Cloud.” The Astrophysical Journal 869 (2018): 1-6.
arXiv:1901.01639 [astro-ph.GA]

Hu, Y. et al. “Magnetic field morphology in interstellar clouds with the velocity gradient technique.” Nature Astronomy (2019): 1-7.
arXiv:2002.09948 [astro-ph.GA]

Lockman, F.. “Accretion Onto the Milky Way: The Smith Cloud.” Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union 11 (2015): 9 – 12.
arXiv:1511.05423 [astro-ph.GA]

The Early Radio Universe

As the expanding universe cooled, the first neutral1 hydrogen atoms formed about 380,000 years after the Big Bang (ABB), and most of the hydrogen in the universe remained neutral until the first stars began forming at least 65 million years ABB.

The period of time from 380,000 to 65 million years or so ABB is referred to as the “dark ages” since at the beginning of this period the cosmic background radiation from the Big Bang had redshifted from visible light to infrared so the universe was truly dark (in visible light) until the first stars began to form at the end of this period.

All the while, neutral hydrogen atoms occasionally undergo a “spin-flip” transition where the electron transitions from the higher-energy hyperfine level of the ground state to the lower-energy hyperfine level, and a microwave photon of wavelength 21.1061140542 cm and frequency 1420.4057517667 MHz is emitted.

Throughout the dark ages, the 21 cm emission line was being emitted by the abundant neutral hydrogen throughout the universe, but as the universe continued to expand the amount of cosmological redshift between the time of emission and the present day has been constantly changing. The longer ago the 21 cm emission occurred, the greater the redshift to longer wavelengths. We thus have a great way to map the universe during this entire epoch by looking at the “spectrum” of redshifts of this particular spectral line.

380,000 and 65 million years ABB correspond to a cosmological redshift (z) of 1,081 and 40, respectively. We can calculate what the observed wavelength and frequency of the 21 cm line would be for the beginning and end of the dark ages.

\lambda _{obs} = (z+1)\cdot \lambda_{emit}


The observed wavelength (λobs) for the 21 cm line (λemit) at redshift (z) of 1,081 using the above equation gives us 22,836.8 cm or 228.4 meters.

\nu = \frac{c}{\lambda }


That gives us a frequency (ν) of 1.3 MHz (using the equation above), where the speed of light c = 299,792,458 meters per second.

So a 21 cm line emitted 380,000 years ABB will be observed to have a wavelength of 228.4 m and a frequency of 1.3 MHz.

Using the same equations, we find that a 21 cm line emitted 65 Myr ABB will be observed to have a wavelength of 8.7 m and a frequency of 34.7 MHz.

We thus will be quite interested in taking a detailed look at radio waves in the entire frequency range 1.3 – 34.7 MHz, with corresponding wavelengths from 228.4 m down to 8.7 m.2

The interference from the Earth’s ionosphere and the ever-increasing cacophony of humanity’s radio transmissions makes observing these faint radio signals all but impossible from anywhere on or near the Earth. Radio astronomers and observational cosmologists are planning to locate radio telescopes on the far side of the Moon—both on the surface and in orbit above it—where the entire mass of the Moon will effectively block all terrestrial radio interference. There we will finally hear the radio whispers of matter before the first stars formed.

1 By “neutral” we mean hydrogen atoms where the electron has not been ionized and resides in the ground state—not an excited state.

2 Incidentally, the 2.7 K cosmic microwave background radiation which is the “afterglow” of the Big Bang itself at the beginning of the dark ages (380,000 years ABB), peaks at a frequency between 160 and 280 GHz and a wavelength around 1 – 2 mm. So this is a much higher frequency and shorter wavelength than the redshifted 21 cm emissions we are proposing to observe here.

References

Ananthaswamy, Anil, “The View from the Far Side of the Moon”, Scientific American, April 2021, pp. 60-63

Burns, Jack O., et al., “Global 21-cm Cosmology from the Farside of the Moon”, https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/2103/2103.05085.pdf

Koopmans, Léon, et al., “Peering into the Dark (Ages) with Low-Frequency Space Interferometers”, https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1908/1908.04296.pdf

Ned Wright’s Javascript Cosmology Calculator, https://astro.ucla.edu/~wright/CosmoCalc.html

Radio Telescope in a Carpet

The lunar farside would be a splendid place to do radio astronomy. First, the cacophony of the Earth would be silenced by up to 2,160 miles of rock. Second, lacking an atmosphere, a radio telescope located on the lunar surface would be able to detect radio waves at frequencies that are absorbed or reflected back into space by the Earth’s ionosphere.

Radio waves below a frequency of 10 MHz (λ ≥ 30 m) cannot pass through the ionosphere to reach the Earth’s surface. The Earth’s atmosphere is variably opaque to radio waves in the frequency range of 10 MHz to 30 MHz (λ = 10 to 30 m), depending upon conditions. The Earth’s atmosphere is mostly transparent to frequencies between 30 MHz (10 m) and 22 GHz (1.4 cm).

Not surprisingly, electromagnetic radiation of a non-terrestrial origin having wavelengths longer than 10 meters has been little studied. If we look, we might discover new types of objects and phenomena.

The best part is the lunar radio telescope wouldn’t have to be a steerable parabolic dish, but instead could be a series of dipole antennas (simple metal rods or wires) imbedded into a plastic carpet that could easily be rolled out onto the lunar surface. This type of radio telescope is “steered” (pointed) electronically through phasing of the dipole elements.

Even though the ever-increasing number of lunar satellites should be communicating at wavelengths far shorter than 10 meters, care must be taken to minimize their impact (both communication and noise emissions) upon all lunar farside radio astronomy.

Radio Quiet Zones

If you thought light pollution is bad (and it is!), radio pollution for radio astronomers is much worse.  Even years ago, terrestrial pollution of the radio spectrum tended to swamp faint celestial sources at many frequencies, and in 1958 the FCC established a 13,000 square mile rectangular region of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland as the National Radio Quiet Zone.  Two facilities within this protected region—whose natural topography helps to screen out many terrestrial radio emissions—are the Sugar Grove Station and the Green Bank Observatory near Green Bank, West Virginia.  The world’s largest fully-steerable radio telescope dish was built at Green Bank in 1956.  Though the original 300-ft. dish collapsed in 1988 due to a structural failure, it was rebuilt in 2000 as the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, a leading facility for radio astronomy.

National Radio Quiet Zone

Counties wholly within the NRQZ, where many radio-emitting sources are regulated or banned outright, are Alleghany, Augusta, Bath, Highland, Nelson, and Rockbridge in Virginia, and Hardy, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Randolph, and Upshur in West Virginia.

The NRQZ isn’t the only radio quiet zone.  Here are some others:

  • Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico
  • Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act (AGAA), South Africa
  • Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), Chile
  • Australian Radio Quiet Zone WA (ARQZWA), Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO)
  • Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (DRAO), Canada
  • Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), China
  • Institute for Radio Astronomy in the Millimeter Range (IRAM), Spain
  • Itapetinga Radio Observatory (IRO), Brazil
  • Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT), Mexico
  • Pushchino Radio Astronomy Observatory, Russia

The best place in the world to do radio astronomy is not on our world at all but instead on the far side of the Moon.  Radio telescopes deployed on the lunar farside could “listen” to the universe with absolutely no interference from Earth.  The solid body of the Moon (and its lack of an atmosphere) would completely block all radio signals and noise emanating from the Earth and Earth orbit.  And some radio telescopes could be quickly and easily deployed (think long-wire antennas rather than radio dishes).  Of course, the Moon itself will need to be designated as a radio quiet zone so that any lunar colonies, rovers, or satellites operate at frequencies and times that will not interfere with scientific work.  Maybe infrared or optical lasers would be a better way to communicate?

How would data from a lunar farside radio observatory be transmitted back to Earth?  One way would be to have a dedicated lunar satellite that receives data from the radio observatory while it is traveling over the lunar farside.  It would then re-transmit that data to Earth while it is traveling over the Earth-facing nearside.

Another (probably more expensive) approach would be to have a series of radio relay towers spaced at intervals from the radio observatory around to the lunar nearside where a transmitter could send the data back to Earth.

A third choice would be to locate the radio observatory in a libration zone along the border between the lunar nearside and farside.  At a libration zone radio observatory, data would be collected and stored until each time libration allows a direct line-of-sight to Earth.

The crater Daedalus, near the center of the lunar farside, has been suggested as the best location for a radio astronomy facility on the Moon (Pagana et al. 2006).

There is also a region above the farside lunar surface where radio emissions from Earth and Earth-orbiting satellites, would be blocked by the Moon, called the “Quiet Cone”, as illustrated in the diagram below.

The Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange point (EML2) is probably going to be within the lunar quiet cone.  Because L2 is an unstable Lagrange point, a radio telescope in the quiet cone would need to be in a halo orbit about EML2, and a tight one at that to avoid “seeing” any radio emissions from the highest Earth-orbiting satellites.

https://i0.wp.com/2.bp.blogspot.com/-ZQVqI6ob6jA/VVJbJS_DYDI/AAAAAAAABCM/jLNBE_lRVxU/s640/EarthMoon5LPoints.jpg?w=840&ssl=1

References
Antonietti, N.; Pagana, G.; Pluchino, S.; Maccone, C.
A proposed space mission around the Moon to measure the Moon Radio-Quiet Zone, 36th COSPAR Scientific Assembly. Held 16 – 23 July 2006, in Beijing, China.