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Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works

Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works

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Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works

Course No. 1280
Professor Richard Wolfson, Ph.D.
Middlebury College
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Course No. 1280
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What Will You Learn?

  • Understand the full sweep of physics, including Newtonian mechanics, thermodynamics, optics, and quantum theory.
  • Get an introduction to scores of fascinating scientific truths, such as Newton's laws of motion and Maxwell's equations.
  • View fun and exciting in-studio experiments that demonstrate the principles of physics.
  • Learn the fundamentals of modern physics, and grasp just how bizarre this new description of reality is.

Course Overview

Physics is the fundamental science. It explains how the universe behaves at every scale, from the subatomic to the extragalactic. It describes the most basic objects and forces and how they interact. Its laws tell us how the planets move, where light comes from, what keeps birds aloft, why a magnet attracts and also repels, and when a falling object will hit the ground, and it gives answers to countless other questions about how the world works.

Physics also gives us extraordinary power over the world, paving the way for devices from radios to GPS satellites, from steam engines to nanomaterials. It's no exaggeration to say that every invention ever conceived makes use of the principles of physics. Moreover, physics not only underlies all of the natural sciences and engineering, but also its discoveries touch on the deepest philosophical questions about the nature of reality.

Which makes physics sound like the most complicated subject there is. But it isn't. The beauty of physics is that it is simple, so simple that anyone can learn it. In 60 enthralling half-hour lectures, Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works proves that case, giving you a robust, introductory college-level course in physics. This course doesn't stint on details and always presents its subject in all of its elegance—yet it doesn't rely heavily on equations and mathematics, using nothing more advanced than high school algebra and trigonometry.

Your teacher is Professor Richard Wolfson, a noted physicist and educator at Middlebury College. Professor Wolfson is author or coauthor of a wide range of physics textbooks, including a widely used algebra-based introduction to the subject for college students. He has specially designed Physics and Our Universe to be entirely self-contained, requiring no additional resources. And for those who wish to dig deeper, he includes an extensive list of suggested readings that will enhance your understanding of basic physics.

Explore the Fundamentals of Reality

Intensively illustrated with diagrams, illustrations, animations, graphs, and other visual aids, these lectures introduce you to scores of fundamental ideas such as these:

  • Newton's laws of motion: Simple to state, these three principles demolish our intuitive sense of why things move. Following where they lead gives a unified picture of motion and force that forms the basis of classical physics.
  • Bernoulli effect: In fluids, an increase in speed means a decrease in pressure. This effect has wide application in aerodynamics and hydraulics. It explains why curve balls curve and why plaque in an artery can cause the artery to collapse.
  • Second law of thermodynamics: Echoing the British novelist and physicist C. P. Snow, Professor Wolfson calls this law about the tendency toward disorder "like a work of Shakespeare's" in its importance to an educated person's worldview.
  • Maxwell's equations: Mathematically uniting the theories of electricity and magnetism, these formulas have a startling outcome, predicting the existence of electromagnetic waves that move at the speed of light and include visible light.
  • Interference and diffraction: The wave nature of light looms large when light interacts with objects comparable in size to the light's wavelength. Interference and diffraction are two intriguing phenomena that appear at these scales.
  • Relativity and quantum theory: Introduced in the early 20th century, these revolutionary ideas not only patched cracks in classical mechanics but led to realms of physics never imagined, with limitless new horizons for research.

A Course of Breathtaking Scope

The above ideas illustrate the breathtaking scope of Physics and Our Universe, which is broken into six areas of physics plus an introductory section that take you from Isaac Newton's influential "clockwork universe" in the 17th century to the astonishing ideas of modern physics, which have overturned centuries-old views of space, time, and matter. The seven sections of the course are these:

  • Introduction: Start the course with two lectures on the universality of physics and its special languages.
  • Newtonian Mechanics: Immerse yourself in the core ideas that transformed physics into a science.
  • Oscillations, Waves, Fluids: See how Newtonian mechanics explains systems involving many particles.
  • Thermodynamics: Investigate heat and its connection to the all-important concept of energy.
  • Electricity and Magnetism: Explore electromagnetism, the dominant force on the atomic through human scales.
  • Optics: Proceed from the study of light as simple rays to phenomena involving light's wave properties.
  • Beyond Classical Physics: Review the breakthroughs in physics that began with Max Planck and Albert Einstein.

As vast as this scope is, you will not be overwhelmed, because one set of ideas in physics builds on those that precede it. Professor Wolfson constantly reviews where you've been, tying together different concepts and giving you a profound sense of how one thing leads to another in physics. Since the 17th century, physics has expanded like a densely branching tree, with productive new shoots continually forming, some growing into major limbs, but all tracing back to the sturdy foundation built by Isaac Newton and others—which is why Physics and Our Universe and most other introductory physics courses have a historical focus, charting the fascinating growth of the field.

An interesting example is Newtonian mechanics. Developments in the late 19th century showed that Newton's system breaks down at very high speeds and small scales, which is why relativity and quantum theory replaced classical physics in these realms. But the Newtonian approach is still alive and well for many applications. Newtonian mechanics will get you to the moon in a spacecraft, allow you to build a dam or a skyscraper, explain the behavior of the atmosphere, and much more. On the other hand, for objects traveling close to the speed of light or events happening in the subatomic realm, you learn that relativity and quantum theory are the powerful new tools for describing how the world works.

Seeing Is Believing

Physics would not be physics without experiments, and one of the engaging aspects of this course is the many on-screen demonstrations that Professor Wolfson performs to illustrate physical principles in action. With a showman's gifts, he conducts scores of experiments, including the following:

  • Whirling bucket: Why doesn't water fall out of a bucket when you whirl it in a vertical circle? It is commonly believed that there is a force holding the water up. But this is a relic of pre-Newtonian thinking dating to Aristotle. Learn to analyze what's really going on.
  • Bowling ball pendulum: Would you bet the safety of your skull on the conservation of energy? Watch a volunteer release a pendulum that swings across the room and hurtles back directly at her nose, which escapes harm thanks to the laws of physics.
  • Big chill: What happens when things get really cold? Professor Wolfson pours liquid nitrogen on a blown-up balloon, demonstrating dramatic changes in the volume of air in the balloon. Discover other effects produced by temperature change.
  • Energy and power: How much power is ordered up from the grid whenever you turn on an electric light? Get a visceral sense by watching a volunteer crank a generator to make a light bulb glow. Try a simple exercise to experience the power demand yourself.
  • Total internal reflection: How does a transparent medium such as glass act as an almost perfect mirror without a reflective coating? See a simple demonstration that reveals the principle behind rainbows, binoculars, and optical fibers.
  • Relativity revelation: What gave Einstein the idea for his special theory of relativity? Move a magnet through a coil, then move a coil around a magnet. You get the same effect. But in Einstein's day there were two separate explanations, which made him think ...

Math for Those Who Want to Probe Deeper

Professor Wolfson doesn't just perform memorable experiments. He introduces basic mathematics to analyze situations in detail—for example, by calculating exactly the speed a rollercoaster needs to travel to keep passengers from falling out at the top of a loop-the-loop track, or by showing that the reason high voltage is used for electrical power transmission is revealed in the simple expression that applies Ohm's law, relating current and voltage, to the formula for power.

You also see how amazing insights can be hidden in seemingly trivial mathematical details. Antimatter was first postulated when physicist Paul Dirac was faced with a square root term in an equation, and instead of throwing out one of the answers as would normally have been done, he decided to pursue the implications of two solutions.

Whenever Professor Wolfson introduces an equation, he explains what every term in the equation means and the significance of the equation for physics. You need not go any further than this to follow his presentation, but for those who wish to probe deeper he works out solutions to many problems, showing the extraordinary reach of mathematics in analyzing nature. But he stresses that physics is not about math; it's the ideas of physics that are crucial.

Understand the World in a New Way

Above all, the ideas of physics are simple. As you discover in this course, just a handful of important concepts permeate all of physics. Among them are

  • conservation of energy,
  • conservation of momentum,
  • second law of thermodynamics,
  • conservation of electric charge,
  • principle of relativity, and
  • Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

The key is not just to think in terms of these principles, but also to let go of common misconceptions, such as the idea that force causes motion; in fact, force causes change in motion. As you progress through Physics and Our Universe, you'll inevitably start to see the world differently.

"I love teaching physics and I love to see the understanding light up in people's eyes," says Professor Wolfson. "You'll see common, everyday phenomena with new understanding, like slamming on the brakes of your car and hearing the antilock brake system engage and knowing the physics of why it works; like going out on a very cold day and appreciating why your breath is condensing; like turning on your computer and understanding what's going on in those circuits. You will come to a much greater appreciation of all aspects of the world around you."

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60 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Fundamental Science
    Take a quick trip from the subatomic to the galactic realm as an introduction to physics, the science that explains physical reality at all scales. Professor Wolfson shows how physics is the fundamental science that underlies all the natural sciences. He also describes phenomena that are still beyond its explanatory power. x
  • 2
    Languages of Physics
    Understanding physics is as much about language as it is about mathematics. Begin by looking at how ordinary terms, such as theory and uncertainty, have a precise meaning in physics. Learn how fundamental units are defined. Then get a taste of the basic algebra that is used throughout the course. x
  • 3
    Describing Motion
    Motion is everywhere, at all scales. Learn the difference between distance and displacement, and between speed and velocity. Add to these the concept of acceleration, which is the rate of change of velocity, and you are ready to delve deeper into the fundamentals of motion. x
  • 4
    Falling Freely
    Use concepts from the previous lecture to analyze motion when an object is under constant acceleration due to gravity. In principle, the initial conditions in such cases allow the position of the object to be determined for any time in the future, which is the idea behind Isaac Newton's "clockwork universe." x
  • 5
    It's a 3-D World!
    Add the concept of vector to your physics toolbox. Vectors allow you to specify the magnitude and direction of a quantity such as velocity. The vector's direction can be along any axis, allowing analysis of motion in three dimensions. Then use vectors to solve several problems in projectile motion. x
  • 6
    Going in Circles
    Circular motion is accelerated motion, even if the speed is constant, because the direction, and hence the velocity, is changing. Analyze cases of uniform and non-uniform circular motion. Then close with a problem challenging you to pull out of a dive in a jet plane without blacking out or crashing. x
  • 7
    Causes of Motion
    For most people, the hardest part of learning physics is to stop thinking like Aristotle, who believed that force causes motion. It doesn't. Force causes change in motion. Learn how Galileo's realization of this principle, and Newton's later formulation of his three laws of motion, launched classical physics. x
  • 8
    Using Newton's Laws—1-D motion
    Investigate Newton's second law, which relates force, mass, and acceleration. Focus on gravity, which results in a force, called weight, that's proportional to an object's mass. Then take a ride in an elevator to see how your measured weight changes due to acceleration during ascent and descent. x
  • 9
    Action and Reaction
    According to Newton's third law, "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." Professor Wolfson has a clearer way of expressing this much-misunderstood phrase. Also, see several demonstrations of action and reaction, and learn about frictional forces through examples such as antilock brakes. x
  • 10
    Newton's Laws in 2 and 3 Dimensions
    Consider Newton's laws in cases of two and three dimensions. For example, how fast does a rollercoaster have to travel at the top of a loop to keep passengers from falling out? Is there a force pushing passengers up as the coaster reaches the top of its arc? The answer may surprise you. x
  • 11
    Work and Energy
    See how the precise definition of work leads to the concept of energy. Then explore how some forces "give back" the work done against them. These conservative forces lead to the concept of stored potential energy, which can be converted to kinetic energy. From here, develop the important idea of conservation of energy. x
  • 12
    Using Energy Conservation
    A dramatic demonstration with a bowling ball pendulum shows how conservation of energy is a principle you can depend on. Next, solve problems in complicated motion using conservation of energy as a shortcut. Close by drawing the distinction between energy and power, which are often confused. x
  • 13
    Newton realized that the same force that makes an apple fall to the ground also keeps the moon in its orbit around Earth. Explore this force, called gravity, by focusing on circular orbits. End by analyzing why an orbiting spacecraft has to decrease its kinetic energy in order to speed up. x
  • 14
    Systems of Particles
    How do you analyze a complex system in motion? One special point in the system, called the center of mass, reduces the problem to its simplest form. Also learn how a system's momentum is unchanged unless external forces act on it. Then apply the conservation of momentum principle to analyze inelastic and elastic collisions. x
  • 15
    Rotational Motion
    Turn your attention to rotational motion. Rotational analogs of acceleration, force, and mass obey a law related to Newton's second law. This leads to the concept of angular momentum and the all-important -conservation of angular momentum, which explains some surprising and seemingly counterintuitive phenomena involving rotating objects. x
  • 16
    Keeping Still
    What's the safest angle to lean a ladder against a wall to keep the ladder from slipping and falling? This is a problem in static equilibrium, which is the state in which no net force or torque (rotational force) is acting. Explore this condition and develop tools for determining whether equilibrium is stable or unstable. x
  • 17
    Back and Forth—Oscillatory Motion
    Start a new section in which you apply Newtonian mechanics to more complex motions. In this lecture, study oscillations, a universal phenomenon in systems displaced from equilibrium. A special case is simple harmonic motion, exhibited by springs, pendulums, and even molecules. x
  • 18
    Making Waves
    Investigate waves, which transport energy but not matter. When two waves coexist at the same point, they interfere, resulting in useful and surprising applications. Also examine the Doppler effect, and see what happens when an object moves through a medium faster than the wave speed in that medium. x
  • 19
    Fluid Statics—The Tip of the Iceberg
    Fluid is matter in a liquid or gaseous state. In this lecture, study the characteristics of fluids at rest. Learn why water pressure increases with depth, and air pressure decreases with height. Greater pressure with depth causes buoyancy, which applies to balloons as well as boats and icebergs. x
  • 20
    Fluid Dynamics
    Explore fluids in motion. Energy conservation requires low pressure where fluid velocity is high, and vice versa. This relation between pressure and velocity results in many practical and sometimes counterintuitive phenomena, collectively called the Bernoulli effect—explaining why baseballs curve and how airplane speedometers work. x
  • 21
    Heat and Temperature
    Beginning a new section, learn that heat is a flow of energy driven by a temperature difference. Temperature can be measured with various techniques but is most usefully quantified on the Kelvin scale. Investigate heat capacity and specific heat, and solve problems in heating a house and cooling a nuclear reactor. x
  • 22
    Heat Transfer
    Analyze heat flow, which involves three important heat-transfer mechanisms: conduction, which results from direct molecular contact; convection, involving the bulk motion of a fluid; and radiation, which transfers energy by electromagnetic waves. Study examples of heat flow in buildings and in the sun's interior. x
  • 23
    Matter and Heat
    Heat flow into a substance usually raises its temperature. But it can have other effects, including thermal expansion and changes between solid, liquid, and gaseous forms—collectively called phase changes. Investigate these phenomena, starting with an experiment in which Professor Wolfson pours liquid nitrogen onto a balloon filled with air. x
  • 24
    The Ideal Gas
    Delve into the deep link between thermodynamics, which looks at heat on the macroscopic scale, and statistical mechanics, which views it on the molecular level. Your starting point is the ideal gas law, which approximates the behavior of many gases, showing how temperature, pressure, and volume are connected by a simple formula. x
  • 25
    Heat and Work
    The first law of thermodynamics relates the internal energy of a system to the exchange of heat and mechanical work. Focus on isothermal (constant temperature) and adiabatic (no heat flow) processes, and see how they apply to diesel engines and the atmosphere. x
  • 26
    Entropy—The Second Law of Thermodynamics
    Turn to an idea that has been compared to a work of Shakespeare: the second law of thermodynamics. According to the second law, entropy, a measure of disorder, always increases in a closed system. Order can only increase at the cost of even greater entropy elsewhere in the system. x
  • 27
    Consequences of the Second Law
    The second law puts limits on the efficiency of heat engines and shows that humankind's energy use could be better planned. Learn why it makes sense to exploit low-entropy, high-quality energy for uses such as transportation, motors, and electronics, while using high-entropy random thermal energy for heating. x
  • 28
    A Charged World
    Embark on a new section of the course, devoted to electromagnetism. Begin by investigating electric charge, which is a fundamental property of matter. Coulomb's law states that the electric force depends on the product of the charges and inversely on the square of the distance between them. x
  • 29
    The Electric Field
    On of the most important ideas in physics is the field, which maps the presence and magnitude of a force at different points in space. Explore the concept of the electric field, and learn how Gauss's law describes the field lines emerging from an enclosed charge. x
  • 30
    Electric Potential
    Jolt your understanding of electric potential difference, or voltage. A volt is one joule of work or energy per coulomb of charge. Survey the characteristics of voltage—from batteries, to Van de Graaff generators, to thunderstorms, which discharge lightning across a potential difference of millions of volts. x
  • 31
    Electric Energy
    Study stored electric potential energy in fuels such as gasoline, where the molecular bonds represent an enormous amount of energy ready to be released. Also look at a ubiquitous electronic component called the capacitor, which stores an electric charge, and discover that all electric fields represent stored energy. x
  • 32
    Electric Current
    Learn the definition of the unit of electric current, called the ampere, and how Ohm's law relates the current in common conductors to the voltage across the conductor and the conductor's resistance. Apply Ohm's law to a hard-starting car, and survey tips for handling electricity safely. x
  • 33
    Electric Circuits
    All electric circuits need an energy source, such as a battery. Learn what happens inside a battery, and analyze simple circuits in series and in parallel, involving one or more resistors. When capacitors are incorporated into circuits, they store electric energy and introduce time dependence into the circuit's behavior. x
  • 34
    In this introduction to magnetism, discover that magnetic phenomena are really about electricity, since magnetism involves moving electric charge. Learn the right-hand rule for the direction of magnetic force. Also investigate how a current-carrying wire in a magnetic field is the principle behind electric motors. x
  • 35
    The Origin of Magnetism
    No matter how many times you break a magnet apart, each piece has a north and south pole. Why? Search for the origin of magnetism and learn how magnetic field lines differ from those of an electric field, and why Earth has a magnetic field. x
  • 36
    Electromagnetic Induction
    Probe one of the most fascinating phenomena in all of physics, electromagnetic induction, which shows the direct relationship between electric and magnetic fields. In a demonstration with moving magnets, see how the relative motion of a magnet and an electric conductor induces current in the conductor. x
  • 37
    Applications of Electromagnetic Induction
    Survey some of the technologies that exploit electromagnetic induction: the electric generators that supply nearly all the world's electrical energy, transformers that step voltage up or down for different uses, airport metal detectors, microphones, electric guitars, and induction stovetops, among many other applications. x
  • 38
    Magnetic Energy
    Study the phenomenon of self-inductance in a solenoid coil, finding that the magnetic field within the coil is a repository of magnetic energy, analogous to the electric energy stored in a capacitor. Close by comparing the complementary aspects of electricity and magnetism. x
  • 39
    Direct current (DC) is electric current that flows in one direction; alternating current (AC) flows back and forth. Learn how capacitors and inductors respond to AC by alternately storing and releasing energy. Combining a capacitor and inductor in a circuit provides the electrical analog of simple harmonic motion introduced in Lecture 17. x
  • 40
    Electromagnetic Waves
    Explore the remarkable insight of physicist James Clerk Maxwell in the 1860s that changing electric fields give rise to magnetic fields in the same way that changing magnetic fields produce electric fields. Together, these changing fields result in electromagnetic waves, one component of which is visible light. x
  • 41
    Reflection and Refraction
    Starting a new section of the course, discover that light often behaves as rays, which change direction at boundaries between materials. Investigate reflection and refraction, answering such questions as, why doesn't a dust mote block data on a CD? How do mirrors work? And why do diamonds sparkle? x
  • 42
    See how curving a mirror or a piece of glass bends parallel light rays to a focal point, allowing formation of images. Learn how images can be enlarged or reduced, and the difference between virtual and real images. Use your knowledge of optics to solve problems in vision correction. x
  • 43
    Wave Optics
    Returning to themes from Lecture 18 on waves, discover that when light interacts with objects comparable in size to its wavelength, then its wave nature becomes obvious. Examine interference and diffraction, and see how these effects open the door to certain investigations, while hindering others. x
  • 44
    Cracks in the Classical Picture
    Embark on the final section of the course, which covers the revolutionary theories that superseded classical physics. Why did classical physics need to be replaced? Discover that by the late 19th century, inexplicable cracks were beginning to appear in its explanatory power. x
  • 45
    Earth, Ether, Light
    Review the famous Michelson-Morley experiment, which was designed to detect the motion of Earth relative to a conjectured "ether wind" that supposedly pervaded all of space. The failure to detect any such motion revealed a deep-seated contradiction at the heart of physics. x
  • 46
    Special Relativity
    Discover the startling consequences of Einstein's principle of relativity—that the laws of physics are the same for all observers in uniform motion. One result is that the speed of light is the same for all observers, no matter what their relative motion—an idea that overturns the concept of simultaneity. x
  • 47
    Time and Space
    Einstein's special theory of relativity upends traditional notions of space and time. Solve the simple formulas that show the reality of time dilation and length contraction. Conclude by examining the twins paradox, discovering why one twin who travels to a star and then returns ages more slowly than the twin back on Earth. x
  • 48
    Space-Time and Mass-Energy
    In relativity theory, contrary to popular views, reality is what's not relative—that is, what doesn't depend on one's frame of reference. See how space and time constitute one such pair, merging into a four-dimensional space-time. Mass and energy similarly join, related by Einstein's famous E = mc2. x
  • 49
    General Relativity
    Special relativity is limited to reference frames in uniform motion. Following Einstein, make the leap to a more general theory that encompasses accelerated frames of reference and necessarily includes gravity. According to Einstein's general theory of relativity, gravity is not a force but the geometrical structure of spacetime. x
  • 50
    Introducing the Quantum
    Begin your study of the ideas that revolutionized physics at the atomic scale: quantum theory. The word "quantum" comes from Max Planck's proposal in 1900 that the atomic vibrations that produce light must be quantized—that is, they occur only with certain discrete energies. x
  • 51
    Atomic Quandaries
    Apply what you've learned so far to work out the details of Niels Bohr's model of the atom, which patches one of the cracks in classical physics from Lecture 44. Although it explains the energies of photons emitted by simple atoms, Bohr's model has serious limitations. x
  • 52
    Wave or Particle?
    In the 1920s physicists established that light and matter display both wave- and particle-like behavior. Probe the nature of this apparent contradiction and the meaning of Werner Heisenberg's famous uncertainty principle, which introduces a fundamental indeterminacy into physics. x
  • 53
    Quantum Mechanics
    In 1926 Erwin Schrödinger developed an equation that underlies much of our modern quantum-mechanical description of physical reality. Solve a simple problem with the Schrödinger equation. Then learn how the merger of quantum mechanics and special relativity led to the discovery of antimatter. x
  • 54
    Drawing on what you now know about quantum mechanics, analyze how atoms work, discovering that the electron is not a point particle but behaves like a probability cloud. Investigate the exclusion principle, and learn how quantum mechanics explains the periodic table of elements and the principle behind lasers. x
  • 55
    Molecules and Solids
    See how atoms join to make molecules and solids, and how this leads to the quantum effects that underlie semiconductor electronics. Also probe the behavior of matter in ultradense white dwarfs and neutron stars, and learn how a quantum-mechanical pairing of electrons at low temperatures produces superconductivity. x
  • 56
    The Atomic Nucleus
    In the first of two lectures on nuclear physics, study the atomic nucleus, which consists of positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons, held together by the strong nuclear force. Many combinations of protons and neutrons are unstable; such nuclei are radioactive and decay with characteristic half lives. x
  • 57
    Energy from the Nucleus
    Investigate nuclear fission, in which a heavy, unstable nucleus breaks apart; and nuclear fusion, where light nuclei are joined. In both, the released energy is millions of times greater than the energy from chemical reactions and comes from the conversion of nuclear binding energy to kinetic energy. x
  • 58
    The Particle Zoo
    By 1960 a myriad of seeming elementary particles had been discovered. Survey the standard model that restored order to this subatomic chaos, describing a universe whose fundamental particles include six quarks; the electron and two heavier cousins; elusive neutrinos; and force-carrying particles such as the photon. x
  • 59
    An Evolving Universe
    Trace the discoveries that led astronomers to conclude that the universe began some 14 billion years ago in a big bang. Detailed measurements of the cosmic microwave background and other observations point to an initial period of tremendous inflation, followed by slow expansion and an as-yet inexplicable accelerating phase. x
  • 60
    Humble Physics—What We Don't Know
    Having covered the remarkable discoveries in physics, turn to the great gap in our current knowledge, namely the nature of the dark matter and dark energy that constitute more than 95% of the universe. Close with a look at other mysteries that physicists are now working to solve. x

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Richard Wolfson

About Your Professor

Richard Wolfson, Ph.D.
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...
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Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 52.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just what I was looking for Prof Wolfson has a clear presentation of the material. I was not looking to become a physicist but wanted to explore the concepts. The Prof keeps his audience in mind while presenting. He takes the time to explain the technical terms that he uses and presents to convey the information instead of trying to impress with his knowledge. Overall he very understandable. I have come to appreciate the DVD courses since they give me a chance to clarify any points that I did not understand. I do not care about a degree, what I am shooting for is getting the information.
Date published: 2016-09-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I absolutely love this class. I'm only 6 lessons into it and I've already learned so much!!!!
Date published: 2016-09-17
Rated 1 out of 5 by from the sound is unbearable. screaming music. why, oh why, is there always screaming loud music behind the video? its painful and makes understanding the speaker absolutely impossible. This company has always had problems with sound , in one way or another, and doesn't seem to care.
Date published: 2016-09-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not a good first presentation Somewhat surprisingly for a highly experienced teacher at an institution (Middlebury) that puts a strong emphasis on undergraduate education, Prof. Wolfson speaks MUCH too quickly for his presentation to be easily followed. This set of lectures would, I think, be an excellent review of the material for someone who has already studied it. There's a feeling of someone who's just trying to cram too much into too short a time. If you are approaching this subject for the first time, I would think that at very least you would need to obtain, and work carefully through, the complete transcript of the lectures. One additional feature that I found extremely annoying. When new points being made appear on the screen, there is a kind of soft bell rung in the background, as though some kind of added aural signal needed to be given. This eventually drove me crazy; I grew to dread it.
Date published: 2016-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Best Exposition of All Physics Essentials An excellent introduction to Physics ("nature" in Greek) and among the 3 top courses for self-study of the essential basic concepts of science I have followed. The scope is extensive. And, no, maths does not constitute a roadblock - all that is required is a basic knowledge of trigonometry. (the sine and cosine functions). The difficulty mentioned by others regarding maths is due to the fact that some basic equations require a sequence up 5 - 10 simple steps and yes although the math level is simple, following the sequence requires attention. Instead of college courses where the physics is rolled up with calculus all at once, Prof. Wolfson clearly explains the key essential points of physics without the calculus which often seems to obscure the physics picture. By insisting on fundamental key points and breaking down each equation to show what each term means, the equations become a short-hand summary instead of remaining cryptic road signs written in a foreign language with foreign characters. (OK, Calculus has to be mentioned often in Lecture 40 and the math seems to get intimidating near the end of the course, in the more advanced lecture 54 which derives the wave equation for the hydrogen atom). Although math is kept to the strict minimum, this course is absolutely not a dumbed-down casual listening entertainment product. Even after I graduated from engineering school, this course proved to be a useful refresher as Prof. Wolfson exposes some small but essential detail I had missed at university. What is required is a commitment to learn. To get the full rewards this course offers, it is necessary to listen seriously. Seriously means taking notes. It will often by necessary to pause, go back a bit and listen again. Expect to spend more time on a lecture than its 30 minute run time. Through the whole set of lectures, Prof. Wolfson successfully manages to motivate the material covered with examples showing how to size up every day situations, from how much oil is required to heat a home up to important challenges for the global use (and waste) of energy. No ivory tower of high-level knowledge - the knowledge is constantly reconnected with practical every day use of the knowledge. Even though the math is simple, it is a quantitative course. Young students pondering future career choices could use this course to determine if the technical field is a viable option. The first 10 or so lectures are easy enough and should they prove to be insurmountable, then other career options should be considered. Again, perseverance is the key. The pace begins softly until lecture 10 is reached. Then the pace begins to pick up somewhat, moving from every day mechanics to more abstract concepts of energy. Again, practical problems are worked out with simple math to give a real life meaning to the concept. An additional bonus is developing the valuable skill of self-reliance to learn on your own. For college, lectures up to 11 would already provide a major head start. Having already absorbed the fundamentals of physics, it will be considerably easier to mix physics with higher-level calculus to undertaken formal training under an enforced schedule. A college teacher could also use this course for pointers on better teaching. Let's face it, not all teachers are as gifted as Prof. Wolfson - some cannot even tell the difference between teaching and mere telling. I did graduate, in spite of a few teacher imitations. A teacher's influence on the students extends far longer than the course duration - over an entire generation. The pace accelerates at lectures 36 to 40 dealing with the electromagnetic field. Prof. Wolfon does an absolutely stellar job at explaining this more difficult subject. Then the pace drops back in the next lectures dealing with optics, back to mundane, every day physics. Prof. Wolfson successfully manages to motivate the material by showing how optics can be exploited to explain how a CD-ROM reader can still work in spite of specs of dust which are considerably bigger than the pits engraved in the CD to record music or data. Lectures 47 and 48 on Special Relativity are particularly amazing - the math is at its strict minimum: calculating the long side of a right-angled triangle is all that is required to arrive at the famous E = mc2 equation. The challenge was to carefully listen to some sentences to absorb the language. At first hearing, some sound downright bizarre but they end up making sense. The dive into the atom is also easy to follow. The lectures on quantum mechanics are challenging because the whole topic at the atomic level is so far away from human everyday life experience - the statements sound downright bizarre and this is where it is really required to rewind and listen again. One criticism to make is that the lectures on electromagnetism do not explain properly explain what a closed surface is. The same way a closed line starts and ends at the same point, defines a surface. The closed surface, like a ping pong ball's extremely thin outer shell, defines a volume inside and there is no entering inside from the outside without piercing the surface. (This could be remedied by adding a small page in the DVD case.also explaining how the direction of the path along the a closed curve allows to define a vector used to account for the direction of a surface within an electric field). I also wish that the effects of black body radiation and radiation pressure had been worked out as challenge problems. I would have liked to see a summary description of what were the steps taken by Newton starting from Kepler's idea of elliptical orbits arriving to the development of calculus.
Date published: 2016-08-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absolutely Brilliant This is the first Great Course I have completed and can say I thoroughly enjoyed it. The course content is fantastic; I can't believe Professor Wolfson managed to essentially cover all the foundations of physics in a 60 lecture series whilst doing justice to all the topics he touched. Being a fan of physics, I have read many books, articles and seen lots of physics videos and was delighted to see pretty much everything I have encountered over the years was at least mentioned if not completely covered in the course. Professor Wolfson himself is a brilliant teacher. He doesn't sound scripted, is passionate in his teaching and uses a perfect mix of standard lecturing, mathematics and experiments to keep you engaged as a student at all times. The challenges and summaries are a nice adjunct as well. Overall, an unmissable course for all those interested in physics. I am extremely impressed and will definitely be purchasing more of Professor Wolfson's courses as well as other Great Courses. However, it should be noted that the course, as Professor Wolfson makes very clear, is quite quantitative. One other reviewer noted that he takes you as far into the world of physics as is possible with high school maths; I couldn't agree more. However, this does mean maths does feature throughout the course where it is useful. For anyone who struggles with the maths (which I sometimes did), Professor Wolfson is so clear in his explanations that you can still follow the concepts even if you aren't following the maths. For anyone who may find that they are struggling with the course, I'd suggest using other sources to clear up concepts before moving on. I found myself doing that on occasion. Explanatory online videos are extremely useful for this.
Date published: 2016-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2016-07-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Teachers Aid i will use in my Physics class for reinforcement.
Date published: 2016-06-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I liked very much electromagnetism & relativity Wow, this is indeed a great course. I originally acquired this course for my daughter for preparation for science graduate school. However, she change her mind. So, I started taking the lectures of this course as a refreshment. When I studied Physics at the university level, I did not have the opportunity to take lectures on electromagnetism and relativity. This course gave me a beautiful perspective for understanding these topics. Professor Wolfson is a great teacher his practical demonstrations are spectacular. His work for this course was monumental. To me this is the best course on General Physics that I have ever taken.
Date published: 2016-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Best of the Best Having just completed Professor Wolfson's 60 lecture course I am left with wanting a sequel. This Great Course is not for everyone but if you have had some science and math either at AP high school or college I would highly recommend this one. Be prepared to frequently use the pause and re-wind feature on your DVD player as Professor Wolfson covers what amounts to 90 minutes of material in 30 minute segments . I especially enjoyed the challenges at the end of most lectures. Most of them are fair with a few requiring some abstract algebraic tricks that would be difficult to employ unless you had recently completed an algebra II course The challenges do force one . to re-play all or part of the lecture pertaining to the challenge material which reinforces the retention of key points that were made. I would suggest that to keep the course current Great Courses somehow update the sections on gravitational waves and the Higgs boson either by dubbing over the video or adding the latest findings on these two events to the course outline. In conclusion, if you are contemplating majoring in physics or are retired and looking for a challenge to keep your mind sharp as was my goal and gain a better appreciation of what makes the universe tick this is a Great Course for you.
Date published: 2016-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I took Physics in high school and college, and hated it. If I had studied under this professor, I think I would have wanted to major in it.
Date published: 2016-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent
Date published: 2016-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is a great course but you need other TGC curs I just need to thank professor Wolfson and TGC company for putting vast amount of time and efforts to built this great course. Visitors need to work through the Wolfson's "Essential University Physics" to understand calculus based materials. Need extra hardwork. You also need other TGC physics courses by Prof. Wolfson to cover the knowledge of above mentioned book. At the same time I would like to suggest TGC company to produce some physics courses that are beyond than just introductory courses. It will tremendiously assists in my higher education. I am an electrical engineering std. I bought altogether six courses and they all are really awesome. I already discovered something new quality inside myself. I am coming back to buy more. Feeling enlighted. Note: Ignore my grammar.
Date published: 2015-07-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great introduction to physics I was a physics major in college more than four decades ago. But the career I wound up in made no use of my physics training at all, so much of it has faded over the years. When I saw the Great Courses “Physics and Our Universe” I thought it would be fun to see some of that material again. (Is it possible to feel nostalgic about physics?) I’m only about half way through, but I just have to share what I’ve found. This course has more than fulfilled my expectations. It is, in essence, a complete college freshman physics course, including the math. Most of the Great Courses make an effort to avoid math, even when it is an integral part of the subject (e.g. “Superstrings”). But physics IS math, applied to the real world. Dr. Wolfson uses math throughout at the level of high school algebra. You need a good grasp of that to follow these lectures. He also points out that to be more rigorous in some situations you need calculus. In these cases he just gives you the answer. I think that the large flat screen TV is very effective. In many other Great Courses, math has simply been shown as a formula or two in a box across the bottom of the screen. On the flat screen, Dr. Wolfson is able to show diagrams illustrating the situation (often in motion), and then right alongside display the mathematics line by line as he derives his solution. It’s a modern upgrade of the old chalk board. In many lectures there are live demonstrations of the principles being discussed, everything from cars on roller coaster tracks showing potential energy wells to dual tone generators demonstrating beats for two close frequencies, to weights and springs as harmonic oscillators. He even ends the lectures with a challenge problem for the viewer to solve for himself (read “homework”). In short, this series has everything you would expect in a real introductory college physics course except tests and grades. Dr. Wolfson is a great teacher. He knows his stuff and presents the material logically and visually. The only negative I have in this whole course is that he speaks very fast. That’s probably necessary to get all the material into half-hour lectures. Real college lectures would be closer to an hour. It means that every now and then you may have to stop the lecture, back up a few minutes, and watch again. Who would benefit from this course? I think those who would benefit most are freshman physics students, taking just such a course as this in college. It would be a great supplement. If there’s anything they don’t quite get in one of their college lectures, Dr. Wolfson’s lecture on the same subject would probably help immensely. Also, high schoolers contemplating a science major in college would get a taste of what lies ahead, and even get a jump start on their studies. And there are the nostalgic old geezers like me. In short, I would recommend this course to anyone with an interest in physics, and who is willing to do some serious thinking as they watch. I know that the Teaching Company isn’t necessarily into providing a complete college education, but I would like to see more courses like this in other subjects, that is, a basically complete freshman course. In fact, I’d love to see a sophomore physics course next
Date published: 2015-03-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Solid survey Solid survey course for a big field. Professor Wolfson explains most topics clearly, includes numerous demonstrations that greatly aid understanding, and even walks through the math when he notes that will be beneficial to grasping the related concepts. Even with 60 lectures, spending more time to offer additional explanation would have helped me on a few topics. Bottom line is that this course is sure to give students a much better understanding of this foundational topic, and I recommend it.
Date published: 2015-01-16
Rated 2 out of 5 by from ambiguous title & what the course does not deliver With the title "Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works" and the course description, I was expecting "it" to refer to how the universe works. However, what Professor Wolfson consistently delivers instead is how the physics describing the universe works. That is, the emphasis is on how physics goes about measuring and calculating different aspects of the universe, not on exploring the nature of the universe itself. What Wolfson does, he does admirably; but, this is not what I was expecting or interested in.
Date published: 2014-12-07
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not for the casual student Perhaps I should hesitate to give poor/mediocre ratings for this course as the shortcoming are more likely those of the student than the professor. Nevertheless, I will begin by saying that most of the course was of little value or interest to me. Although the math content was as advertised and could be followed by those of some minimal math background, I found most of the mathematical explanations and exercises unnecessary to an understanding of the physics concepts of interest to me. More than once I felt the professor eliminated a more thorough treatment of the fundamental physics to launch into mathematical exercises. I found this particularly frustrating in the electricity and nuclear physics portions of the course. He also refused to provide a more detailed explanations of nuclear weapons design and operations, something I was interested in as I was reading Richard Rhodes books on the development of the first atomic weapons and the H bomb. And I needed help. To fully profit from this course would require a very serious effort by the student, with significant study in addition to only watching the lectures, and something like what would be required in a high school or college course. It is likely I should have taken one of the other courses by the professor which I suspect would be a better fit for me given my interest and motivation. With regard to the Professor Wolfson, his energy, clarity, and knowledge might exceed those any teaching company Professor. He is superb.
Date published: 2014-12-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Bleeut Nice comb over! How come all profs automatically assume students HATE math? The problem is: the profs do NOT know how to teach math. That includes Sal.
Date published: 2014-10-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Physics Made Simple I've read a lot of reviews for this course that complained about the fact that a lot of math is used in theses lectures but really, there is only one way to address this complaint; this is a (1st semester) college level physics course. Expecting there to be little in the way of math involved is an extremely naive expectation and one that has dragged the overall rating for this course down. I would suggest undertaking the (also excellent) Algebra/Precalc/Calculus courses by TTC as a pre-requisite to this course if your maths is a little rusty. Having recently embarked on a physics degree (inspired partly by this course) I can honestly say that professor Wolfson does remarkably well at keeping the math as simple as possible while still providing fantastic insight into such a detailed subject (especially the sections on waves and quantum mechanics where differential equations are largely avoided). Even now I still turn to these lectures as a brief refresher either before attending lectures or studying for an exam. A truly fantastic amount of material is covered in the 60 lectures. Coupled with any university physics text (proper understanding is only really attained by solving problems yourself) and some effort on the student's part, this course is pure gold. Highly reccomended.
Date published: 2014-07-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Tour de Force! Kudos to Prof. Wolfson for a highly engaging, insightful, and extremely worthwhile exploration of the major subjects in Physics. I came away with a much deeper understanding of what Physics teaches us about the fundamental laws of nature and how its principles underlie much of what we enjoy as the fruits of modern technology. I was particularly pleased by his focus on three things: 1. The “big ideas” of Physics (e.g., Newton’s great insight that bodies are naturally at rest or in motion, in contrast to the previous age-old idea of Aristotle that bodies need to be pushed to gain motion at all); 2. Practical applications of the Physics fundamentals he presents in his lectures; for example, Faraday’s magnetic induction discovery is shown to be at the heart of our hydroelectric generating systems; and 3. His careful breakdown in clear English of the major mathematical formulas that express the various physical laws and principles he covers in the course. Prof. Wolfson employs a variety of laboratory experiments, videos and photographs that serve well to illustrate his points and maintain his viewers’ interest. You will perhaps be surprised after his well-illustrated lecture on Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity that the theory now makes sense to you, even though it is of course in many ways counterintuitive to think of time as being subject to one’s “frame of reference.” To get the most from this course, I recommend you review your high school trigonometry in order to follow a number of sine/cosine calculations made in the course. Calculus is not necessary even though referred to from time to time. In such cases, Prof. Wolfson simply describes in plain English what the calculus equation is designed to do, so that little is missed in this course by those who do not have Calculus in their background. All in all, one of the most rewarding Great Courses I have taken.
Date published: 2014-04-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Deep Presentation of Physics Sometimes, while watching a Great Course, I find it very interesting, but then forget most of it when I'm done. That didn't happen with this course for me: this course actually changed the way I think about the world, and I now rewatch individual lectures from time to time to refresh my understanding. I've always had a vague interest in physics, but had never really gotten it. However, Prof. Wolfson's presentation really hit home for me in many of the topics covered. He has an incredible way of getting to the core of a concept and presenting it simply: he uses formal mathematics at times if you want it, but he presents ideas in such a way as to make the underlying concept clear without formalism. I've watched 17 Great Courses so far, and liked them all, but this is my favorite.
Date published: 2014-03-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Truly Great Course Dr. Wolfson's physics lectures definitely live up to the name "Great Course". I finished lecture 60 today. I thoroughly enjoyed every single lecture. Crystal clear explanations and examples with just enough math to illuminate the concepts. Covered an amazing breadth of topics with superb clarity and efficiency. I'd recommend Dr Wolfson's course to anyone.
Date published: 2014-02-05
Rated 1 out of 5 by from A good course made bad by the audio editors This course presents many mathematical concepts that require your undivided attention. The Teaching Company editors have injected extraneous audio sounds simultaneous with the professor's lectures that, in some cases, make what he is saying difficult to hear, and provide enough distraction that the material is much more difficult, and in some cases impossible, to follow. I have replayed some of the lecture summaries over several times, and finally gave up, realizing I had no idea what he had just said. They seem to think I want to be entertained, not to learn! Eliminate these noises and I will give the course a 5.
Date published: 2014-01-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from great lecture I am more than 50% through the course and am greatly impressed with the lecturer. he makes it so easy to understand. I graduated from an engineering college 50 years ago. If I had this course back then I would have gotten straight "A's".
Date published: 2014-01-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Course I avoided physics as an undergraduate and my graduate degree was not in a science field. But now as 50-something person, I've been bitten by the physics bug. My goal is to be able to appreciate and understand the the recent breath-taking discoveries in physics. To do this, I need a comprehensive course in the fundamentals. Professor Wolfson does an amazing job of organizing the material and presenting it in an understandable, engaging manner. There is enough math to demonstrate the concepts in a meaningful way, but not so much that a math dummie like me gets lost. The production value is also excellent. If you want to get a non-superficial "lay of the land" in physics from Newton through Quantum mechanics, I think you will be very pleased with this course.
Date published: 2013-12-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Tough, rigorous, but fabulous! In response to those commenters who found this course too tough to follow, here's my input: For those seeking an "armchair" physics course, this isn't it. The Teaching Company offers over a dozen other excellent physics-related courses for non-scientists, and if you're looking for something you can relax and watch without much mental effort, then you should probably pick one of those instead. But if, like I was, you are seeking a well laid out, rigorous, fairly thorough, algebra/trig level survey course in general physics with all the math, this is it! To fully appreciate this course, I'd recommend reviewing algebra I and the three basic trig functions for a couple of hours before diving in. That's as high as the math goes, but if your algebra is rusty, you could easily get lost. I'm a retired biotech executive who has started teaching high school science as a second post-retirement career. This course fully caught me up on the physics I last studied more than four decades ago, and it made it possible for me to ace my state physics subject teaching exams! This course is also probably adequate to get a college biology major well prepared for the physics subject areas on the MCAT exam as well. Just understand that this is a serious, college level science course. It is not like a Discovery Channel infotainment piece on physics! You'll need note paper, and a calculator, as you should be writing a lot down as you plow through this course. I took over 150 pages of hand-written notes! I'm now in the process of reviewing the entire course for the second time, to prepare me for revamping and updating our high school AP Physics curriculum. This course seems to offer all the content that I need . . . and that my AP Physics students would need . . . to do well on the College Board AP test. Kudos to Professor Wolfson for a job well done! Now, if the Teaching Company would just offer a comparably rigorous chemistry course . . . . !!!
Date published: 2013-12-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course and professor I have taken several courses by Professor Wolfson before. He is dynamic and interesting, and this course was no exception. Even though I have a basic background in physics, I found that many concepts were brought together nicely and the similarities between the areas shown. I hope he will teach more courses in the future.
Date published: 2013-10-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Math Heavy My intention was to sit back and enjoy a course that would be entertainment heavy with live physics demonstrations of concepts. The idea that one can enjoy this course with some mathematics ability in algebra and some trig was misleading. It's heavy in math for many of us who have left their math far behind them. Beware of this fact.
Date published: 2013-08-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Better Understanding That I committed the time to experience 60 lectures start to end covering one broad topic is testimony to the quality of this presentation. The range of subject matter is enormous and Professor Wolfson has the rare gift of explaining each topic with clarity while reminding the viewer that the topics are interrelated. He strikes the right balance between introductory level but challenges viewers to do some math if so inclined. He weaves historical information with the topic at hand and adds commentary about how new discoveries affected the political, religious and social environment of their day. I could not imagine the undertaking of constructing a course that encompasses this breadth of material and do it with such mastery. Professor Wolfson is to be commended.
Date published: 2013-08-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2013-04-23
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