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Impossible: Physics beyond the Edge

Impossible: Physics beyond the Edge

Course No.  1299
Course No.  1299
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Physicists spend a lot of time thinking about impossible things, since probing the constantly shifting bounds between the possible and impossible is one of the best ways to discover unexpected phenomena and new laws of nature. And for nonscientists, exploring this extraordinary realm is one of the best introductions to the immensely rich subject of physics.

Consider these questions:

  • Can machines produce limitless energy?
  • Is time travel possible?
  • Can anything travel faster than light?
  • Is it possible to escape from a black hole?

Each is a puzzle that requires pieces from different parts of physics to solve. And after investigating these and other questions, you begin to see how all of physics is tied together in a system that is consistent, logical, beautiful, and often very surprising.

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Physicists spend a lot of time thinking about impossible things, since probing the constantly shifting bounds between the possible and impossible is one of the best ways to discover unexpected phenomena and new laws of nature. And for nonscientists, exploring this extraordinary realm is one of the best introductions to the immensely rich subject of physics.

Consider these questions:

  • Can machines produce limitless energy?
  • Is time travel possible?
  • Can anything travel faster than light?
  • Is it possible to escape from a black hole?

Each is a puzzle that requires pieces from different parts of physics to solve. And after investigating these and other questions, you begin to see how all of physics is tied together in a system that is consistent, logical, beautiful, and often very surprising.

For example, the question about whether time travel is possible leads you to a study of the nature of time and space. The paradoxes you encounter there are directly related to Einstein's concepts of space-time and the constancy of the speed of light from his theory of relativity. This, in turn, takes you to exotic ideas such as black holes and wormholes, which some theorists believe may be potential shortcuts through space-time.

Before you know it, a staple subject of science fiction—time travel—has taken you through many layers of investigation to reveal profound truths about the universe.

Impossible: Physics beyond the Edge uses this ingenious approach in 24 delightful half-hour lectures that will entertain and nourish your mind, while teaching you more physics than you ever imagined. Your guide into the realms of the impossible is veteran Great Courses Professor Benjamin Schumacher of Kenyon College, a pioneering theorist in quantum information, which is a field dealing with things once deemed impossible.

Is It Possible?

Designed for those with no previous knowledge of physics, Impossible: Physics beyond the Edge will also appeal to the spirit of whimsy and adventure in those already well grounded in the subject. The course is illustrated with hundreds of diagrams, 3-D animations, and images to convey fundamental ideas at the core of physics—all in pursuit of the answer to the question, "Is it possible?"

Thanks to today's science-fiction-rich media, people are more inclined than ever to think that the fanciful is real, that imaginary creations such as perpetual motion machines and warp-drive space engines are feasible technologies. Impossible: Physics beyond the Edge serves as an enlightening corrective to this outlook.

On the other hand, modern physics is full of real phenomena that are so counterintuitive that they seem like science fiction. Here are a few that you encounter in this course:

  • Near-absolute zero: Reaching the coldest possible temperature—absolute zero at -273.15º C—is probably impossible. But as some substances approach this limit, electrical resistance and viscosity drop to zero, and a strange new form of matter emerges.
  • Time dilation: According to Einstein's special theory of relativity, a clock in motion keeps time more slowly than one at rest—from the point of view of an observer at rest. However, an observer accompanying the moving clock notices no time slowdown at all.
  • Quantum tunneling: In the quantum world, particles can do the equivalent of walking through walls—appearing on the other side of an apparently impassable energy barrier. The effect has many uses, including the scanning tunneling microscope, which can "see" atoms.
  • Entanglement: In the strangest of all quantum effects, a pair of particles acts together as a system; if something happens to one particle, the other responds instantly, even if it is millions of miles away. It seems like a violation of faster-than-light communication, but it isn't.

From Thermodynamics to Information Theory

Professor Schumacher begins the course by investigating three ways that scientists interpret the impossible and how these approaches inspired important breakthroughs by Euclid, Isaac Newton, and James Clerk Maxwell. Historically, some inventions and discoveries were called impossible shortly before they were actually achieved, and you learn how there is a danger of being like the eminent scientist Simon Newcomb, who in 1903 declared that humans would never fly, just a few weeks before the Wright brothers took off over Kitty Hawk.

The opposite risk is chasing a dream that the laws of physics won't allow. The most notorious example is a device that produces limitless energy—a perpetual motion machine. Professor Schumacher's discussion of this long and fruitless quest leads you to one of the most important sets of ideas in physics: the three laws of thermodynamics, which were developed in the 19th century in concert with the technological innovations of the industrial revolution.

From here, you survey the advancing frontier of physics, as startling new theories changed our perception of what's possible and what's not, including such revolutions as these:

  • Relativity and quantum theory: Starting in the early 20th century, these two groundbreaking theories have done more than anything else to remap the border between the possible and impossible.
  • Chaos theory: The discovery that the future is hostage to unpredictable, chaotic fluctuations in present conditions destroyed the dream that the future can ever be forecast with any certainty or precision.
  • Noether's theorem: In the early 20th century, mathematician Emmy Noether made the remarkable discovery that the great laws of physics, such as the conservation of energy, result from symmetrical features of space and time.
  • Information theory: Information is a powerful idea in physics and at the heart of many impossible phenomena, such as the impossibility of anything traveling faster than light—in which "anything" means "information."

You will also see how the square-cube law in mathematics was used as long ago as the 17th century to conclusively dismiss an idea that still won't die: that gigantic insects and other larger-than-life creatures are plausible life forms.

Impossibility as a Tool of Understanding

By the end of the course, you will have probed the nature of the impossible from many points of view and in many branches of physics—discovering that racing a light beam, hovering over a black hole, chasing quantum particles, trying to reverse the flow of time, and other astounding adventures make an excellent education in the fundamental laws of nature. These laws work together to create the sometimes perplexing, frequently surprising, and always wonderful world in which we live. As Professor Schumacher says, "If our goal is understanding, then there is nothing more practical than the impossible."

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    From Principles to Paradoxes and Back Again
    Prepare to explore the thrilling frontier that separates the possible from the impossible by first looking at what scientists mean by these two terms, and how the boundaries can shift. Professor Schumacher notes that by pondering the impossible, scientists gain amazing insights into the nature of physical laws. x
  • 2
    Almost Impossible
    Many technological and scientific breakthroughs were thought to be impossible before they were achieved. Examine several famous cases in which foremost experts were proved wrong—about heavier-than-air flight, space travel, the chemical composition of stars, and the existence of life forms at ultrahigh temperatures. x
  • 3
    Perpetual Motion
    Probe one of the most enduring of all impossible quests: the search for a perpetual motion machine. Learn how the futility of such a pursuit was explained four centuries ago by the Flemish mathematician Simon Stevin, whose work eventually led to the law of conservation of energy. x
  • 4
    On Sunshine and Invisible Particles
    Investigate two challenges to the law of conservation of energy, also known as the first law of thermodynamics. In the 19th century, the source of the sun's energy seemed inexplicable, until the discovery of radioactivity. Then, in the 20th century, a type of radioactive decay appeared to violate energy conservation, until the discovery of an invisible elementary particle. x
  • 5
    Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire
    Learn how the 19th-century French engineer Nicolas Carnot showed that only a temperature difference can be used to generate work, and that some waste heat must always be lost—ideas that led to the second law of thermodynamics and the important concept of entropy. x
  • 6
    Maxwell's Demon
    Entropy always increases in a system in which work is being done. Investigate James Clerk Maxwell's famous "demon"—an imaginary being that, in principle, appears to violate the entropy law. See how the demon paradox was resolved by interpreting entropy as information. x
  • 7
    Absolute Zero
    Learn how absolute zero (0 K or -273.15 degrees Celsius) is unattainable due to the third law of thermodynamics. Nonetheless, remarkable things happen on the way toward this impossible goal. For example, electrical resistance and viscosity drop to zero in certain substances, and weird quantum mechanical effects occur. x
  • 8
    Predicting the Future
    Consider a new kind of impossible thing: predicting the future in the presence of chaos. Even the slightest imprecision in present knowledge makes the long-term future unknowable. This is the phenomenon of dynamical chaos, also known as the "butterfly effect"—from the ability of a single flapping butterfly to radically affect future weather. x
  • 9
    Visiting the Past
    Explore the paradoxes of time travel. These are so fundamental that most physicists regard time travel as a near-absolute impossibility, yet science-fiction writers—and a few imaginative physicists—have proposed ways to avoid these difficulties. Look into some of their intriguing ideas. x
  • 10
    Thinking in Space-Time
    Is the passage of time merely "a stubborn illusion," as Einstein believed? Investigate the revolutionary concept of space-time that emerges from his theory of relativity, which involved a major redrawing of the boundary between the possible and the impossible in physics. x
  • 11
    Faster than Light
    Nothing can travel faster than light. Is there a way around this prohibition? Learn that it all depends on what is meant by a "thing." By considering various thought experiments, discover that this ultimate speed limit applies fundamentally to information, which means it is impossible to send a message into the past. x
  • 12
    Black Holes and Curved Space-Time
    Einstein's general theory of relativity interprets gravity as a distortion of space-time near a massive object. Find out that for a very massive, dense object, this can result in a "black hole"—a region where the distortion is so strong that escape is impossible. x
  • 13
    A Spinning Universe, Wormholes, and Such
    Delve deeper into Einstein's theories to uncover some startling implications: The entire cosmos could be rotating on its axis, giving rise to several supposedly impossible phenomena, already dismissed. Weigh the evidence for and against "exotic" matter, wormholes, and other hypothetical features of space-time. x
  • 14
    What Is Symmetry?
    Something is symmetric if it is impossible to tell whether a particular transformation has been applied. Explore this fascinating boundary between the possible and impossible, which includes some of the deepest principles of physics—among them, the surprising connection between symmetry and conservation laws discovered by mathematician Emmy Noether. x
  • 15
    Mirror Worlds
    Inspect the universe through three special mirrors. One is an ordinary mirror that reflects left and right. Another mirror exchanges matter and antimatter. The third switches the future and the past. Is it possible to tell these mirror-worlds from our own? What does that imply about the laws of nature? x
  • 16
    Invasion of the Giant Insects
    Test a favorite plot device of science-fiction movies by examining whether supersize gorillas, insects as big as trucks, and other ordinary creatures enlarged to gigantic size can really exist. Is there a physical reason such monsters are in fact impossible? x
  • 17
    The Curious Quantum World
    With the discovery of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century, the accepted boundary between the possible and the impossible was changed in radical ways. Begin a series of lectures on the quantum realm with a look at three of its key features. x
  • 18
    Impossible Exactness
    In Newtonian physics, the position and velocity of a particle can both be specified to any level of precision. Not so in quantum mechanics, where these are limited by Heisenberg's famous uncertainty principle. Investigate the consequences of this fundamental restriction on what it's possible to know. x
  • 19
    Quantum Tunneling
    Discover how phenomena deemed impossible in classical physics are a regular feature of the quantum world—notably quantum tunneling, which is the ability of a subatomic particle to surmount a seemingly impassable energy barrier. One result of this effect: Black holes emit a slow trickle of energy known as Hawking radiation. x
  • 20
    Whatever Is Not Forbidden Is Compulsory
    Explore a startling rule in quantum mechanics: Anything that can possibly happen, will happen. This means that whatever does not happen, whatever is truly impossible among the elementary particles, provides a clue to the fundamental laws of nature. x
  • 21
    Entanglement and Quantum Cloning
    Delve into the weirdest of all quantum phenomena: entanglement, which causes a pair of quantum particles to behave as if they are telepathically connected. By cloning quantum particles, this effect could, in theory, allow faster-than-light signals, but there are fundamental reasons this is impossible. x
  • 22
    Geometry and Conservation
    Where do conservation laws come from? How does nature "enforce" them? Investigate these questions by performing a remarkable thought experiment: See how Maxwell's laws of electromagnetism and the geometry of space together imply the conservation of electric charge, even in a theoretical "electromagnetic-free" zone. x
  • 23
    Symmetry, Information, and Probability
    Survey the landscape of the impossible by focusing on three recurring themes in the course: One, symmetries are among the deepest principles in physics; two, the idea of information is pervasive; three, many phenomena that appear to be impossible are only statistical impossibilities. x
  • 24
    The Future of the Impossible
    Professor Schumacher concludes the course with his million-dollar list—those things he would be willing to bet a million dollars will remain impossible even in the face of future discoveries. But first he challenges you to draw on your newly acquired knowledge of physics to propose your own list. x

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Benjamin Schumacher
Ph.D. Benjamin Schumacher
Kenyon College

Dr. Benjamin Schumacher is Professor of Physics at Kenyon College, where he has taught for 20 years. He received his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from The University of Texas at Austin in 1990. Professor Schumacher is the author of numerous scientific papers and two books, including Physics in Spacetime: An Introduction to Special Relativity. As one of the founders of quantum information theory, he introduced the term qubit, invented quantum data compression (also known as Schumacher compression), and established several fundamental results about the information capacity of quantum systems. For his contributions, he won the 2002 Quantum Communication Award, the premier international prize in the field, and was named a Fellow of the American Physical Society. Besides working on quantum information theory, he has done physics research on black holes, thermodynamics, and statistical mechanics. Professor Schumacher has spent sabbaticals working at Los Alamos National Laboratory and as a Moore Distinguished Scholar at the Institute for Quantum Information at California Institute of Technology. He has also done research at the Isaac Newton Institute of Cambridge University, the Santa Fe Institute, the Perimeter Institute, the University of New Mexico, the University of Montreal, the University of Innsbruck, and the University of Queensland.

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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 47 reviewers.
Rated 1 out of 5 Poor website I was unable to view this course as a download/ There were frequent 1 minute pauses in the video - and the download link did not save the video to my pc..No online help is available to deal with these issues. On the whole i have wasted $35 and will not return to this website. I suggest you tube - which is free instead of this poor website. September 28, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by impossible science student I was able to follow the lectures at some level but not lecture 22 about the conservation of electric charge. The professor lost me in that one. The lecture could have been made more idiot-proof, even if it took two lectures to make it clear to a person with absolute zero scientific aptitude like me. I did gain insights into the subject from the course though. February 10, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by He gets better ever year Great presentation skills. Easy to understand. Good material and subject follows well from chapter to chapter. Have both of his courses and they complement each other. Still do not believe that there are particles, only wave to wave contact (at wave peaks) that causes what we view as particles.... "whitecaps" . November 25, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Impossoble Physics Using science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke's 3 Laws of Future Science, Professor Schumacher takes the viewer on a tour of the current state of physics, and explains why certain things are, and why others are not. Along the way he blows up some tall castles in the air concerning, among other things, faster than light speed, teleportation, time travel to the past, and perpetual motion. Let's just say if you're a fan of the Star Trek television series or Star Wars movies, you'll find out why you shouldn't take what you've seen and enjoyed too seriously. A lot of what is in those shows is, well, impossible. Scotty won't be beaming you anywhere, anytime soon. Like many courses in the Great Courses science series, the work assumes the viewer has at least a passing familiarity with some of the topics. Dr. Schumacher is engaging and enthusiastic. He better be because some of the course material is pretty droll. That said, this is my last physics course from the Great Courses. I've taken 7 or 8 courses presented by a variety of physicists and until something truly new and astonishing is discovered and presented, I'm done. November 4, 2013
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