Great Courses Launchpoint

The Teaching Company, LLC offers hundreds of video courses under the name “The Great Courses” on just about every subject imaginable, with more being added all the time.

Though offered for personal in-home viewing, these 30-minute lectures (or 45-minute in the case of Robert Greenberg’s engaging music courses) would make a wonderful centerpiece for a continuing education course.

As an instructor, what I would like to be able to do is show my class a Great Courses lecture, and then follow that with discussion and activities that reinforce and expand upon those  concepts during the remainder of a 60-minute or 90-minute class.

Not unlike what a good teaching assistant does in a college recitation section after a lecture by the professor, The Great Courses lecture would provide instructional scaffolding for both instructor and student.

I believe The Teaching Company has a great opportunity here.  Just by allowing an instructor to show a course to students (and charging a reasonable fee to do so), they would be opening up a new market for their products, and would no doubt bring in many new individual customers.

The Teaching Company could provide the courses “as is”, or could make available supplemental materials for the continuing education teacher and their students.

I even have a name for this new offering: Great Courses Launchpoint.

Currently, The Teaching Company doesn’t exactly encourage the use of their materials for face-to-face teaching:

My hope is that they will see the value of incorporating their video lectures into the classroom, and maybe Great Courses Launchpoint will roll out by the time I semi-retire in three or four years.  One of the frustrations of getting older is that my “day job” is taking a greater share of my time and available energy than ever before.  I love teaching, though, and semi-retirement will afford me the opportunity to begin teaching on a regular basis again.  Looking forward to it!

Cosmology: The History and Nature of Our Universe

Mark Whittle, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Virginia, has put together the most comprehensive and comprehensible treatment on the subject of cosmology that I have ever encountered.  Cosmology: The History and Nature of Our Universe, a series of 36 thirty-minute video lectures for The Great Courses (Course No. 1830), is a truly remarkable achievement.

Even though this course was released ten years ago in 2008, all of the material is still completely relevant.  This is the course on cosmology that I’ve always wanted but never had.  Enjoy!

Cosmology has come a long ways since I was a physics and astronomy student at Iowa State University from 1975-1980, and again in 1981, 1984, and 2000-2005.  I’m glad to see a course specifically about cosmology is now offered at a number of universities.  When I was an undergraduate student at ISU, it was unheard of.  The University of Wisconsin at Madison Department of Astronomy currently offers both an undergraduate and a graduate course in cosmology: Astronomy 335 – Cosmology, and Astronomy 735 – Observational Cosmology.  And the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Iowa State University now offers an undergraduate/graduate dual-listed cosmology course: Astro 405/505 – Astrophysical Cosmology.

When I retire in a few years, I would love to be a “fly on the wall” at the UW-Madison astronomy department.  Wonder if they could use an expert SAS programmer to help analyze the massive quantities of data they surely must have?  (Though the last time I interviewed for an astronomy job, at the McDonald Observatory in Texas, the interviewers had never heard of SAS but asked if I knew Python, which of course is what nearly everyone is looking for and using these days.  Tomorrow, it will be something else…).  In retirement, at the very least I would love to immerse myself in a few astronomy courses at UW-Madison.  Something to look forward to!

Earth’s Changing Climate

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued an important special report yesterday on climate change.  In the accompanying press release, they state the following:

    • Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities.  Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This  means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.
    • This report will be a key scientific input into the Katowice Climate Change Conference in Poland in December, when governments review the Paris Agreement to tackle climate change.
    • We are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice.
    • Warming of 1.5ºC or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems.

In the Summary for Policymakers, the IPCC states that “warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea level rise, with associated impacts.”

This last point is very important.  Even if humanity disappeared from the face of the Earth tomorrow, it will take centuries to millennia for greenhouse gases in our atmosphere to return to pre-industrial levels.

Richard Wolfson, Professor of Physics at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, states in his excellent 2007 video course, “Earth’s Changing Climate” (The Great Courses, Course No. 1219),

The atmosphere, living things, soils, and surface ocean waters all represent short-term carbon reservoirs.  Cycling among these reservoirs occurs mostly on relatively short time scales.  In particular, a typical carbon dioxide molecule remains in the atmosphere only about five years.  But the rapid cycling of carbon through the atmosphere-biosphere-surface ocean system means that any carbon added to that system remains there much longer—for hundreds to thousands of years. Because the added carbon cycles through the atmosphere, the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide goes up and stays up for a long time.

We’ve known about this aspect of climate change for a long time.  It is based on solid science.  Any action we take now, either positive or negative, will affect Earth’s environment many generations into the future.

I know of no better introduction to climate science than Richard Wolfson’s video course.  Even though it was produced 11 years ago, it is still completely relevant.

Earth’s Changing Climate, The Great Courses, Course No. 1219

Einstein, Brahms, and Exoplanets

What do Albert Einstein, Johannes Brahms, and exoplanets have in common?  They are all great courses provided by The Great Courses.

Call me old fashioned, but I love a great lecture presented by an expert in the field.  What a wonderful way to get introduced to a new subject, or refamiliarize yourself with an old subject, or deepen your knowledge about a subject with which you are already familiar.

I recently finished watching the magnificent course “Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian” by Don Howard, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, former Director of Notre Dame’s Graduate Program in History and Philosophy of Science, and a Fellow of the University of Notre Dame’s Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values.

I have taken an interest in Einstein since I first encountered relativity in my early teens, and of course being a physics major in college I became much more familiar with Einstein’s remarkable scientific contributions.  But this course surprised and delighted me with many details about Einstein himself.  Howard obviously has a much deeper understanding of Einstein the person than most physicists do, and his enthusiasm for his subject comes through in every lecture.  I doubt you will find a more thorough treatment of Einstein anywhere short of reading a biography.  Recommended!

As luck would have it, while I was nearing the end of this course, Time came out with an updated reissue of its special edition, “Albert Einstein: The Enduring Legacy of a Modern Genius”.  Great photographs, great text.  Well worth every penny!


Robert Greenberg is music historian-in-residence with San Francisco Performances and has produced a lot of high-quality music courses for The Great Courses.  I am in the process of watching all of them (yes, really, they’re that good!).  Recently, I finished his course on Johannes Brahms, who is probably my all-time favorite composer.

The music of Brahms is well known by many, but how much do you know about Johannes Brahms the person, and the events of his life?  This course is the perfect introduction to those subjects, as well as his extraordinary compositions.

It is amazing to me that no one has yet made a feature-length film about the life of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).  A historically accurate dramatic portrayal could easily become one of the most significant musical film biographies ever made.  Brahms was one of the greatest composers who ever lived, and he had an interesting life—there is much material to draw upon for the making of this movie.  Greenberg’s course is a great place to begin, and I would also recommend the definitive biography, “Brahms: His Life and Work” by Karl Geiringer.


You’ve just got to love The Great Courses.  This is what television could have been.  PBS is the only thing that even comes close.  I recently completed “The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know” presented by Joshua Winn, now Professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University.  Not since Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson have I been this excited about an astronomy presenter.  Josh Winn presents his exoplanets course with enthusiasm, precision, and a delivery that really draws you in to the subject.  I hope we see much more of him in the future.

Electronic Music

If you haven’t experienced any of the wonderful music courses taught by Dr. Robert Greenberg, available through The Great Courses, you’re missing a lot.  In episode 1, “The Language of Music”, of Understanding the Fundamentals of Music (Course No. 7261), Greenberg describes music not only as a language, but as what I would call a superlanguage.

Music is the ultimate language, a mega-language.  A language in which our hard-wired proclivities to use successions of pitches and sounds to communicate are exaggerated, intensified, and codified into a sonic experience capable of infinitely more expressive depth and nuance than mere words alone.

Greenberg goes on to present a definition of music that is far better than any you will find in the dictionary.

Music is sound in time, or, if you prefer, time ordered by sound.  That definition isolates the two essential aspects of music, sound and time, without any qualifications.

After defining timbre, Greenberg presents the five families of instruments in the Western musical tradition.  Aside from the human voice, they are

  1. Stringed instruments
  2. Wind instruments
  3. Brass instruments
  4. Percussion instruments
  5. Keyboard instruments

And, Greenberg states,

If this course had been written back in the 1970s or ’80s, it would have included a sixth instrumental category: electronics.  There was a genuine belief back then that digitally synthesized sound was the wave of the future.  And that an entirely new vocabulary of sound, one relevant to the technocracy of the modern world, was just around the corner.  You know what?  It never happened.  As it turned out, composers prefer to write for real people playing real instruments.  And audiences would rather listen to real people playing real instruments.  Ironically, more than anything else, digital electronics are used today to imitate those “antiquated” instruments that they were purportedly going to replace.

Though I certainly agree that electronic music will never replace natural instruments played by real people, and I hope that orchestral and chamber music will be with us centuries hence, I have no doubt that new instruments will occasionally be invented and join their venerated ranks, and that electronic music will one day garner enough respect that it will take a permanent seat as a sixth instrumental category.

The world has yet to see a composer of electronic music that can be considered on equal footing with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, or Mahler.  But it will happen.  Perhaps, even today, there lives a young girl or boy somewhere in the world who is already on the path towards becoming the world’s first great composer of electronic music.

Isao Tomita (1932-2016), of Japan, has arguably come the closest.  Yes, his music is idiosyncratic, and his best work a reinterpretation of existing orchestral pieces, but when you listen to Tomita at his best, you get at least a sense of what is possible within the electronic idiom.  Who wouldn’t be tempted by the ability to create any tone color or instrumental timbre imaginable?  It’s not for everyone, I know.

Here is a sampling of Tomita’s best work:

Snowflakes are Dancing (1974)

Pictures at an Exhibition (1975)

Firebird (1976)

Tomita was a pioneer.  The best is yet to come.