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Cosmology: The History and Nature of Our Universe

Cosmology: The History and Nature of Our Universe

Professor Mark Whittle Ph.D.
University of Virginia
Course No.  1830
Course No.  1830
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Evidence for the birth of the universe is raining down on you. It's called the cosmic microwave background, and it's had quite a journey. Born in the stupendous annihilation of matter and antimatter seconds after the big bang, trapped in the hot plasma of the expanding universe for 380,000 years, and then suddenly released when the universe cooled to the point that atoms could form, this echo of creation has been on an uninterrupted voyage through space for 13.7 billion years—until it reached you. The cosmic microwave background is just one of the many clues about the history and nature of our universe that make the science of cosmology a wondrous, fascinating, and philosophically profound field of study.

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Evidence for the birth of the universe is raining down on you. It's called the cosmic microwave background, and it's had quite a journey. Born in the stupendous annihilation of matter and antimatter seconds after the big bang, trapped in the hot plasma of the expanding universe for 380,000 years, and then suddenly released when the universe cooled to the point that atoms could form, this echo of creation has been on an uninterrupted voyage through space for 13.7 billion years—until it reached you. The cosmic microwave background is just one of the many clues about the history and nature of our universe that make the science of cosmology a wondrous, fascinating, and philosophically profound field of study.

Cosmology: The History and Nature of Our Universeintroduces you to the biggest story of all in 36 half-hour lectures that cover the origin, evolution, composition, and probable fate of our universe. This detailed and accessible course, presented by award-winning Professor Mark Whittle of the University of Virginia, incorporates more than 1,700 stunning illustrations.

The Perfect Time to Learn Cosmology

An expert on the dynamics of supermassive black holes at the cores of galaxies, Professor Whittle is an astronomer with a gift for making his subject vivid, understandable, and awe inspiring. For example, in explaining the vastness of the universe, he asks you to imagine yourself as a stupendous giant making billion-light-year strides through the cosmos, hour after hour. Even at this ultra-warp-drive pace, you would always find yourself in the middle of a uniform mist of galaxies with no end in sight.

Professor Whittle notes that we are the first generation ever to know in detail just how the universe came to be. Right now is the perfect time to learn cosmology, since researchers have just completed the work on more than a decade of breathtaking discoveries. The picture they have assembled is truly stunning in its richness and coherence and includes such findings as these:

  • The universe began 13.7 billion years ago in a hot big bang.
  • The geometry of the universe's space is "flat," supporting the theory of a cosmic origin in a rapid, inflationary burst of unimaginable speed.
  • Ripples frozen in space at the instant of inflation formed the seeds from which galaxies and all later structure grew.
  • The universe will expand forever at an accelerating rate.

Take an Intimate Look at the Universe

Einstein famously said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." As Cosmology shows, the universe is comprehensible at a remarkably deep level in simple, intuitive terms. As the course unfolds, you are introduced to the major clues that have gone into deciphering the mystery of the cosmos. Some of these clues involve concepts at the cutting edge of astrophysics, such as dark matter, dark energy, and cosmicinflation. Professor Whittle introduces these and many other ideas with inventive analogies and then builds on his explanations.

For instance, one of the most extraordinary aspects of the cosmic microwave background is that it tells us the universe was ringing with sound during its first 380,000 years. It took a satellite measuring minute fluctuations in the microwave background to disclose this property of the early universe. But the story does not end there because scientists can say a great deal about this primordial sound and what it means:

  • Was it loud? Variations in the microwave background indicate that the sound was the approximate decibel evel of front-row seats at a rock concert. (Professor Whittle picks Pink Floyd as a suitably deafening example.)
  • What's the pitch? The primordial sound was 50 octaves lower than the range of human hearing. Just as larger organ pipes make deeper notes, so the universe's "pipes" are cosmic in size and make extremely low notes.
  • Was it musical? As you hear in Professor Whittle's different re-creations of the primordial sound, it had a harmonic complexity with a quality somewhere between a musical note and noise.
  • What does it tell us? The primordial sound included pressure waves destined to grow into the largest structures in the universe.

At Home in the Cosmos

There is also much to see in Cosmology. In addition to showing magnificent telescopic images, Professor Whittle illustrates his lectures with hundreds of informative diagrams, together with computer animations from NASA and other sources that give a three-dimensional perspective on the universe. You take a tour of our local supercluster, watch galaxies collide, and see "rivers" of galaxies flowing toward pockets of invisible dark matter, among other compelling simulations. Such a comprehensive, in-depth presentation is only available with this course and not in any classroom, book, or documentary.

Professor Whittle enriches his lectures with a number of simple equations, such as Hubble's Law. But you don't need to follow the math in detail, since he always restates what's going on in plain English. Indeed, Professor Whittle suggests that we may be hardwired to understand the universe at an intuitive level, since we evolved on a planet embedded in an astrophysical setting and subject to the same laws of physics that apply throughout all of space and time. We are truly at home in the cosmos.

Prepare to Be Surprised

Nonetheless, prepare to be surprised by some of the startling ideas you encounter in Cosmology:

  • Matter and energy are only the positive side of reality. There is an equal and opposite negative side that resides in gravitational fields. Together they sum to zero, implying that the universe came from nothing.
  • The annihilation of virtually all matter by antimatter just after the big bang means that every proton and electron in your body has survived a game of Russian roulette with a billion bullets and one blank.
  • Dark energy has the crucial property of making the universe fall outward, rather than inward, which is why the expansion of the universe is accelerating.
  • Our universe may be only one of many, in what has come to be called the multiverse. If each of these universes has different laws of physics, we should not be surprised that at least one—ours—happens to have the parameters that are conducive to life.

Looking back on the wealth of recent discoveries about the universe that are covered in this course, Professor Whittle can hardly contain his excitement. "I wouldn't be surprised if 500 years from now, these two decades will be seen as a period of breakthrough, not unlike the periods of discovery we associate with names like Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, or Einstein. ... One might say that right now is when cosmology has finally come of age."

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    The Journey Ahead
    Cosmology takes the entire universe as its subject, not just its form, structure, and contents, but also how it was born and how it has evolved. You look at the origin of cosmology in creation stories before taking a whirlwind tour of the whole course. x
  • 2
    Denizens of the Universe
    This lecture introduces the hierarchy of structures in the universe: from planets to stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters, and larger groupings of galaxies called the cosmic web. Since light travels at a finite speed, looking far away also means looking far back in time. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 5
    The Sweep of Cosmic History
    Take a quick trip through the history of the universe, from the big bang to a conjectured future of ever-accelerating expansion. Eight key stages are in between, including the condensation of atoms, the birth of the first stars, and the formation of galaxies. x
  • 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. x
  • 7
    Expansion and Age
    Measurements of the Doppler shift of galaxies in the early 20th century revealed that essentially all were moving away from us. The more distant ones are moving faster, in direct proportion to their distance. This is the famous Hubble Law, which implies an initial "big bang." x
  • 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. x
  • 9
    Dark Matter and Dark Energy—96%!
    Atomic matter comprises less than 5% of the total cosmic census. This realization came with the discovery of dark matter (23%) in the 1970s and dark energy (73%) in the late 1990s. They are "dark" because they are detectable only by their subtle gravitational effects. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 14
    Conditions during the First Million Years
    You visit the million-year-old universe to take in the sights: a slowly changing rainbow sky, a low-density super-hot atmosphere, and everywhere, brilliant light. x
  • 15
    Primordial Sound—Big Bang Acoustics
    Earth's atmosphere is the medium for sound waves. Was the primordial atmosphere of the young universe also conducive to sound? The answer is yes, as proved by tiny variations in the CMB. You hear re-creations of this primordial sound, which is somewhere between a musical note and noise. x
  • 16
    Using Sound as Cosmic Diagnostic
    Slight differences in the properties of the universe lead to slightly different sound spectra. These differences allow cosmologists to use sound spectra to determine what kind of universe we inhabit. You listen to the primordial sound of three universes of different densities. x
  • 17
    Primordial Roughness—Seeding Structure
    There are two key players in the growth of structure in the universe: atomic matter and dark matter. This lecture looks at how dark matter created the framework into which atomic matter ultimately gathered. From these concentrations of atomic matter, stars and galaxies eventually formed. x
  • 18
    The Dark Age—From Sound to the First Stars
    How does the universe move from a smooth, uniformly filled state, ringing with primordial sound, to one with stars and galaxies? You follow the process that resulted in the first stars, which were massive, brilliant beacons lighting up the early universe. x
  • 19
    Infant Galaxies
    Once the first generation of stars had formed, they began to collect into infant galaxies—chaotic collections of stars and gas that were much smaller than today's huge, majestic galaxies. The best telescopic images, such as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, show this exuberant period. x
  • 20
    From Child to Maturity—Galaxy Evolution
    The young universe matured into its present adult phase through the ceaseless collision of small galaxies to make big ones. Our own Milky Way galaxy formed this way and has a major collision looming in its future—3 or 4 billion years from now. x
  • 21
    Giant Black Holes—Construction and Carnage
    At the heart of essentially every galaxy lies a giant black hole, a million to a billion times as massive as the sun. These monsters play an important role in the lives of galaxies. Confirming their existence was an impressive achievement of the Hubble Space Telescope. x
  • 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. x
  • 23
    Atom Factories—Stellar Interiors
    Humans are no less a part of the universe than any star or galaxy, and the atoms in us can only have arrived via a cosmological route. This lecture discusses how heavier elements came from stellar processes, including nuclear reactions and supernova explosions. x
  • 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. x
  • 25
    Light Elements—Made in the Big Bang
    There is one glaring error in the story of atom-genesis inside stars: far too much helium. It must have been produced in the big bang along with other light elements. According to theory, this occurred when the universe was just three minutes old. x
  • 26
    Putting It Together—The Concordance Model
    This lecture reviews the six key pieces of evidence that indicate that we live in an expanding, evolving universe that began in a hot big bang a few billion years ago. Together with five key observational datasets, these pieces yield a remarkably consistent picture called the concordance model. x
  • 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. x
  • 28
    Back to a Microsecond—The Particle Cascade
    At one microsecond, all the particles of the standard model of particle physics were present. By the time the universe was a few minutes old, matter-antimatter annihilation and nuclear fusion had roughly created today's composition of mainly photons and a few protons, helium nuclei, and electrons. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 32
    The Quantum Origin of All Structure
    Inflation also helps explain the origin of cosmic lumpiness. During inflation, tiny quantum mechanical fluctuations can get frozen as real fluctuations when they expand faster than light, away from their place of origin. The expansion then stretches these fluctuations to cosmic proportions. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 35
    What's Next for Cosmology?
    The next 20 years in cosmology promise to be no less interesting than the last. New experiments are in the works to deepen our understanding in six areas: dark matter, dark energy, the universe's first billion years, galaxy evolution, inflation, and the early universe. x
  • 36
    A Comprehensible Universe?
    Why is it possible for us to understand the universe? Could our apparent comprehension be an illusion? There are good reasons to believe that we have authentic access to the deepest secrets of nature and that we should not be surprised to feel at home in the universe. x

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Mark Whittle
Ph.D. Mark Whittle
University of Virginia
Dr. Mark Whittle is Professor of Astronomy at the University of Virginia, where he has been teaching since 1986. He teaches on the solar system, stars, galaxies, cosmology, and observing techniques. He also gives frequent public lectures, and he is committed to community outreach on all areas of astronomy, particularly cosmology. Professor Whittle's research centers on various aspects of nuclear activity in galaxies, a phenomenon that arises from gas falling onto supermassive black holes. His most recent work focuses on the properties of jets that emerge from Seyfert galaxies and the role they play in energizing the central few thousand light-years. Professor Whittle uses both optical and radio telescopes for his research, including the Hubble Space Telescope. Professor Whittle was a Mackinnon Scholar at Magdalen College, University of Oxford, where he obtained his B.A. Honors in Physics, First Class. He earned his M.A. in Physics at Oxford and his Ph.D. in Astronomy at the University of Cambridge.
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Reviews

Rated 4.9 out of 5 by 119 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Absolutely Outstanding! The Best of the Best I have purchased more than thirty Great Courses, and have enjoyed them all. Several were excellent. But until I started "Cosmology: The History and Nature of Our Universe," I didn't really know how good it could get. As a former astronomy student (forty + years ago) I appreciate how difficult this subject is to understand. That's why I am so impressed that Dr. Whittle is able to make cosmology so accessible. His manner is confident, clear and engaging. He obviously loves his subject. His use of figures, photos, graphs and the rare equation illustrate his message perfectly. At one time he said that he was presenting some concepts that weren't usually discussed outside professional circles, and some were certainly new to me. I felt privileged that I was being let in on the inner circle and learning things that hardly anyone else knew. Also, it was great to be brought up to date on more recent developments in cosmology. It's true that a person with no science background at all might find it a little difficult to follow. Dr. Whittle acknowledges this now and then, and let's his viewer know that it's okay if he doesn't quite get a particular detail. Even so, the concepts are there and anyone determined enough to follow it through will come away much better acquainted with the story of our universe. I think I'll go watch it again. June 21, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Marvelous and Must-own Yet another outstanding space science course from TTC and another wonderful professor! Professor Whittle joins Fillipenko, Degrasse Tyson, and Meyer on the Mt. Rushmore of Great Courses space sciences professors, IMHO. He has an engaging personality, a clear lecture style, and uses visuals beautifully and skillfully. Easily 5-star in every respect. June 21, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Another 5-star review I agree with the other 5-star reviews and like others I have a number of Great Courses. The author makes things as clear as they can be given their complexity and technical nature of the theory and evidence. The only limitation is that the course is probably a touch out of date--not wrong, just not including some recent reports or findings. Great Courses ought to ask instructors in fast-changing fields to add a new lecture, could be just sitting at his desk or something, to update things that have changed. But not that much has changed in the meat of things, so I recommend this to anyone curious about what's up there in the sky and how it got that way. June 19, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Exciting course This is the most exciting course I have watched. The instructor has a gift for explaining very complex subjects. His enthusiasm is catching. I would not recommend this to the casual viewer, for it gets quite technical at times. I frequently stop the DVD to peruse a graph in detail or backup to to go over the material again. In fact, I will probably watch the whole course again sometime after this first viewing. But for those who are prepared to think as well as listen, it a a most rewarding course. April 26, 2014
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