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Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: Modern Physics for Non-Scientists, 2nd Edition

Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: Modern Physics for Non-Scientists, 2nd Edition

Professor Richard Wolfson Ph.D.
Middlebury College
Course No.  153
Course No.  153
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

"It doesn't take an Einstein to understand modern physics," says Professor Richard Wolfson at the outset of this course on what may be the most important subject in the universe.

Relativity and quantum physics touch the very basis of physical reality, altering our commonsense notions of space and time, cause and effect. Both have reputations for complexity. But the basic ideas behind relativity and quantum physics are, in fact, simple and comprehensible by anyone. As Professor Wolfson points out, the essence of relativity can be summed up in a single sentence: The laws of physics are the same for all observers in uniform motion.

The same goes for quantum theory, which is based on the principle that the "stuff " of the universe—matter and energy—is not infinitely divisible but comes in discrete chunks called "quanta."

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"It doesn't take an Einstein to understand modern physics," says Professor Richard Wolfson at the outset of this course on what may be the most important subject in the universe.

Relativity and quantum physics touch the very basis of physical reality, altering our commonsense notions of space and time, cause and effect. Both have reputations for complexity. But the basic ideas behind relativity and quantum physics are, in fact, simple and comprehensible by anyone. As Professor Wolfson points out, the essence of relativity can be summed up in a single sentence: The laws of physics are the same for all observers in uniform motion.

The same goes for quantum theory, which is based on the principle that the "stuff " of the universe—matter and energy—is not infinitely divisible but comes in discrete chunks called "quanta."

Profound ... Beautiful ... Relevant

Why should you care about these landmark theories? Because relativity and quantum physics are not only profound and beautiful ideas in their own right, they are also the gateway to understanding many of the latest science stories in the media. These are the stories about time travel, string theory, black holes, space telescopes, particle accelerators, and other cutting-edge developments.

Consider these ideas:

  • Although Einstein's theory of general relativity dates from 1914, it has not been possible to test certain predictions until recently. The Hubble Space Telescope is providing some of the most striking confirmations of the theory, including certain evidence for the existence of black holes, objects that warp space and time so that not even light can escape. Also, the expansion of the universe predicted by the theory of general relativity is now a known rate.
  • General relativity also predicts an even weirder phenomenon called "wormholes" that offer shortcuts to remote reaches of time and space.
  • According to Einstein's theory of special relativity, two twins would age at different rates if one left on a high-speed journey to a distant star and then returned. This experiment has actually been done, not with twins, but with an atomic clock flown around the world. Another fascinating experiment confirming that time slows as speed increases comes from measuring muons at the top and bottom of mountains.
  • A seemingly absurd consequence of quantum mechanics, called "quantum tunneling," makes it possible for objects to materialize through impenetrable barriers. Quantum tunneling happens all the time on the subatomic scale and plays an important role in electronic devices and the nuclear processes that keep the sun shining.
  • Some predictions about the expansion of the universe were so odd that Einstein himself tried to rewrite the mathematics in order to eliminate them. When Hubble discovered the expansion of the universe, Einstein called the revisions the biggest mistake he had ever made.
  • An intriguing thought experiment called "Schrödinger's cat" suggests that a cat in an enclosed box is simultaneously alive and dead under experimental conditions involving quantum phenomena.

From Aristotle to the Theory of Everything

Professor Wolfson begins with a brief overview of theories of physical reality starting with Aristotle and culminating in Newtonian or "classical" physics. Then he outlines the logic that led to Einstein's theory of special relativity, and the simple yet far-reaching insight on which it rests.

With that insight in mind, you move on to consider Einstein's theory of general relativity and its interpretation of gravitation in terms of the curvature of space and time.

Professor Wolfson then shows how inquiry into matter at the atomic and subatomic scales led to quandaries that are resolved—or at least clarified—by quantum mechanics, a vision of physical reality so at odds with our experience that it nearly defies language.

Bringing relativity and quantum mechanics into the same picture leads to hypotheses about the origin, development, and possible futures of the entire universe, and the possibility that physics can produce a "theory of everything" to account for all aspects of the physical world.

Fascinating Incidents and Ideas

Along the way, you'll explore these fascinating incidents and ideas:

  • In the 1880s, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley conducted an experiment to determine the motion of the Earth relative to the ether, which was a supposedly imponderable substance pervading all of space. You'll learn about their experiment, its shocking result, and the resulting theoretical crisis.
  • In 1905, a young Swiss patent clerk named Albert Einstein resolved the crisis by discarding the ether concept and asserting the principle of relativity—that the laws of physics are the same for all observers in uniform motion.
  • Relativity implies that the time order of events can be different in different reference frames. Does this wreak havoc with cause and effect? And why does Einstein assert that nothing can go faster than light?
  • 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 a whole day.
  • Historically, the path to general relativity followed Einstein's attempt to incorporate gravity into relativity theory, which led to his understanding of gravity not as a force, but as a local manifestation of geometry in curved spacetime.
  • Quantum theory places severe limits on our ability to observe nature at the atomic scale because it implies that the act of observation necessarily disturbs the thing that is being observed. The result is Werner Heisenberg's famous "uncertainty principle."
  • Are quarks, the particles that make up protons and neutrons, the truly elementary particles? What are the three fundamental forces that physicists identify as holding particles together? Could they be manifestations of a single, universal force?

A Teaching Legend

On his own Middlebury College campus, Professor Wolfson is a teaching legend with an infectious enthusiasm for his subject and a knack for conveying difficult concepts in a way that fosters true understanding. He is the author of an introductory text on physics, a contributor to the esteemed publication Scientific American, and a specialist in interpreting science for the nonspecialist.

In this course, Professor Wolfson uses extensive illustrations and diagrams to help bring to life the theories and concepts that he discusses. Thus we highly recommend our DVD version, although Professor Wolfson is mindful of our audio students and carefully describes visual materials throughout his lectures.

Professor Richard Wolfson on the Second Edition of Einstein's Relativity:

"The first version of this course was produced in 1995. In this new version, I have chosen to spend more time on the philosophical interpretation of quantum physics, and on recent experiments relevant to that interpretation. I have also added a final lecture on the theory of everything and its possible implementation through string theory. The graphic presentations for the DVD version have also been extensively revised and enhanced. But the goal remains the same: to present the key ideas of modern physics in a way that makes them clear to the interested layperson."

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Time Travel, Tunneling, Tennis, and Tea
    What are the two big ideas of modern physics? How can nonscientists gain a handle on these ideas and the radical changes they bring to our philosophical thinking about the physical world? x
  • 2
    Heaven and Earth, Place and Motion
    Understanding motion is the key to understanding space and time. Is there a "natural" state of motion? Learn why the ancients gave different answers to this question, and how Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo laid the foundation for a new approach. x
  • 3
    The Clockwork Universe
    Isaac Newton was born in 1642, the year that Galileo died. You'll learn how he built on the work of Galileo and Kepler, developing the three laws of motion and the concept of universal gravitation. You'll learn why Newton's laws suggest a universe that runs like a clock. x
  • 4
    Let There Be Light!
    The study of motion is not all there is to physics. By the 18th century, scientists were delving into the relationship between the two phenomena. Today, electromagnetism is known to be responsible for the chemical interactions of atoms and molecules and all of modern electronic technology. x
  • 5
    Speed c Relative to What?
    In mechanics (the branch of physics that studies motion), the principle of Galilean relativity holds—meaning that the laws of mechanics are the same for anything in uniform motion. Is the same true for the laws of electromagnetism? x
  • 6
    Earth and the Ether—A Crisis in Physics
    In the 1880s, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley conducted an experiment to determine the motion of Earth relative to the ether. You'll learn about their experiment, its shocking result, and the resulting theoretical crisis. x
  • 7
    Einstein to the Rescue
    In 1905 a young Swiss patent clerk named Albert Einstein resolved the crisis that flowed from the Michelson-Morley result. When Einstein discarded the ether concept and asserted that the principle of relativity holds for all of physics, mechanics as well as electromagnetism, he was making a simple claim with almost unimaginably profound implications. x
  • 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? x
  • 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! x
  • 10
    Escaping Contradiction—Simultaneity Is Relative
    If, as relativity implies, "moving clocks run slow," who's to say which clock is moving? x
  • 11
    Faster than Light? Past, Future, and Elsewhere
    Relativity implies that the time order of events can be different in different reference frames. Does this wreak havoc with cause and effect? Finally, why is it that nothing can go faster than light? x
  • 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. x
  • 13
    A Problem of Gravity
    Historically, the path to general relativity followed Einstein's attempt to incorporate gravity into relativity theory, which led to his understanding of gravity not as a force, but as a local manifestation of geometry in curved spacetime. x
  • 14
    Curved Spacetime
    What causes spacetime to curve? Einstein's theory of relativity offers an answer, but for decades after he published it, there were only a few, very subtle tests of its validity. How has modern astrophysics changed all that? x
  • 15
    Black Holes
    General relativity is similar to Newtonian gravitation except in the case of very dense objects such as collapsed stars. Learn why they are called black holes. x
  • 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. x
  • 17
    Enter the Quantum
    The "stuff" of the universe—matter and energy—is not continuously subdividable but comes in discrete "chunks." This fundamental graininess of the universe has profound implications for the behavior of matter and energy at the smallest scales. x
  • 18
    Wave or Particle?
    Einstein's resolution of the photoelectric effect problem suggests that light consists of particles (photons). But how can this be reconciled with the understanding of light as an electromagnetic wave? x
  • 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? x
  • 20
    Particle or Wave?
    In 1923, Louis de Broglie proposed that, like light photons, particles of matter might also display wave properties. The wave nature of smaller particles such as electrons is quite visible and leads to many unusual phenomena, including quantum tunneling mentioned in Lecture 1. x
  • 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. x
  • 22
    The Particle Zoo
    Are quarks, the particles that make up protons and neutrons, the truly elementary particles? What are the three fundamental forces that physicists identify as holding particles together? Are they manifestations of a single, universal force? x
  • 23
    Cosmic Connections
    Why does physicist Freeman Dyson think that intelligence may persist into the infinite future, even as the universe evolves through an unimaginable richness of new forms and structures? x
  • 24
    Toward a Theory of Everything
    Why can't we answer questions about what happened before the Big Bang, or what goes on at the center of a black hole? Can we manage the formidable task of combining quantum physics with general relativity? Physics may well be the most important subject in the universe, a theoretical realm that ranges from the infinitesimally small to the infinitely vast, its laws governing time, space, and the forces that created our world. x

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Richard Wolfson
Ph.D. Richard Wolfson
Middlebury College

Dr. Richard Wolfson is the Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics at Middlebury College, where he also teaches Climate Change in Middlebury's Environmental Studies Program. He completed his undergraduate work at MIT and Swarthmore College, graduating from Swarthmore with a double major in Physics and Philosophy. He holds a master's degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Physics from Dartmouth.

Professor Wolfson's published work encompasses diverse fields such as medical physics, plasma physics, solar energy engineering, electronic circuit design, observational astronomy, theoretical astrophysics, nuclear issues, and climate change. His current research involves the eruptive behavior of the sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, as well as terrestrial climate change and the sun–Earth connection.

Professor Wolfson is the author of several books, including the college textbooks Physics for Scientists and Engineers, Essential University Physics,and Energy, Environment, and Climate. He is also an interpreter of science for the nonspecialist, a contributor to Scientific American, and author of the books Nuclear Choices: A Citizen's Guide to Nuclear Technology and Simply Einstein: Relativity Demystified.

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Reviews

Rated 4.5 out of 5 by 106 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by An understandable approach to a complex subject Of all the professors at the Great Courses Richard Wolfson has so far proved to be my favorite; he covers his subjects thoroughly and yet has the ability to break down complex subject matter into bite size portions which he then ties together in a readily understandable manner. Having just started using my telescope and diffraction grating to capture and process spectra of stellar atmospheres I particularly enjoyed his explanation as to how and why quantum physics plays a role in determining the characteristics of those spectra. October 7, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent course Highly-skilled instructor provides a truly fascinating account of physics today. September 19, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: REDUNDANT!!! The professor repeated himself at least twenty times when talking about how physics was independent of its frame of reference. Once or twice was sufficient, but TWENTY times? He must be assuming his students are dumb as a post. September 8, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution This is my first review here. I'm motivated to GIVE a review because this is a really good course. Aside from the intrinsically awesome nature of the subject, the instructor, Professor Richard Wolfson, is EXCELLENT. September 7, 2014
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