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Skywatching: Seeing and Understanding Cosmic Wonders

Skywatching: Seeing and Understanding Cosmic Wonders

Professor Alex Filippenko Ph.D.
University of California, Berkeley
Course No.  1852
Course No.  1852
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Course Overview

About This Course

12 lectures  |  47 minutes per lecture

Step outside at any time of day or night, look up, and you're bound to see a world filled with limitless wonders: majestic rainbows, dramatic cloud formations, stirring sunsets, intricate constellations, captivating solar eclipses, and even the distant planets themselves. But these and other breathtaking natural phenomena are more than just pretty objects to be admired. Rather, they're the result of fascinating atmospheric and astronomical processes that describe right in front of you important concepts in scientific fields such as

  • cosmology,
  • physics (including optics and electromagnetism), and
  • meteorology and other atmospheric sciences.
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Step outside at any time of day or night, look up, and you're bound to see a world filled with limitless wonders: majestic rainbows, dramatic cloud formations, stirring sunsets, intricate constellations, captivating solar eclipses, and even the distant planets themselves. But these and other breathtaking natural phenomena are more than just pretty objects to be admired. Rather, they're the result of fascinating atmospheric and astronomical processes that describe right in front of you important concepts in scientific fields such as

  • cosmology,
  • physics (including optics and electromagnetism), and
  • meteorology and other atmospheric sciences.

These and other processes all too often go unappreciated by the average skywatcher. To truly understand and enjoy the wonders in the sky requires a solid understanding of the science behind where these wonders come from and how they're formed, as well as insights into the best times and places to see them and simple equipment and other steps you can use to improve what you see at any time.

Get an unparalleled visual guide to nature's most mysterious and beautiful offerings with Skywatching: Seeing and Understanding Cosmic Wonders. With these twelve 45-minute lectures, award-winning astronomer and Professor Alex Filippenko of the University of California, Berkeley, has crafted a visually stunning tour of the sky's most dazzling displays, most of which you can see even without binoculars. Using the same dynamic and engaging teaching style that has won him praise from countess lifelong learners around the world, he shows you new ways to see your surroundings and appreciate the marvels of both our planet and the entire universe.

Get Up Close and Personal with Nearby Phenomena ...

The first half of Skywatching reintroduces you to the amazing intrigue behind phenomena and objects that are nearby and in front of you almost every single day.

  • Clouds: While it may seem as if clouds are random formations of moisture in the air, they can, in fact, be organized into three major categories. Cirrus clouds are wispy and partly transparent. Stratus clouds look like horizontally extended sheets and often cover large areas. And cumulus clouds are quite vertical and look heaped.
  • Sunsets: Sunsets can be seen all over the world, but summer solstices far north or south are the best places to see truly long, dramatic sunsets. These types of sunsets happen when the sun sets at a shallow angle relative to the horizon rather than at a steep angle.
  • Rainbows: Contrary to popular belief, rainbows don't form after clouds and rain have disappeared, because they depend on the intricate interaction between light and rain. Also, rainbows move with you; so if you were to walk to "where the rainbow ends," it wouldn't be there anymore since it's always 40 to 42 degrees away from your antisolar point.

... As Well as with Wonders Far out in Space

You'll also discover more than you ever thought possible about features that lie far beyond our atmosphere.

  • Stars: While bright stars look larger to the naked eye, these stars are not necessarily bigger in physical size than fainter ones. Bright stars in the night sky look bigger due to an effect called irradiation, in which light hitting your eyes' retinas is scattered away from where the image is focused, stimulating a larger patch of your retinal cells.
  • Planets: There's a good rule of thumb to use to tell when you're looking at a planet instead of a star. If you see that the point of light is twinkling less than other stars of similar brightness that are roughly the same altitude above the horizon, then what you're seeing is likely a planet.
  • Meteors: If you see a few dozen meteors in an hour, chances are you're witnessing a meteor shower. During these showers, the Earth passes through the orbit of an old, disintegrating comet. Each year, there are one or two showers associated with a specific comet, depending on whether its orbital plane is tilted relative to Earth's orbital plane.

Packed with Stunning Visuals

One of our most intensively illustrated courses ever produced, Skywatching captures ground-eye views of how you can see everything from mysterious iridescent clouds to the ghostly corona of the sun through

  • personal photographs taken by Professor Filippenko;
  • jaw-dropping images from telescopes and observatories; and
  • detailed animations that break down scientific concepts.

An elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor Filippenko has won numerous awards for his ability to engage listeners and instill in them the awe and wonder at the sky above their heads. With him, you'll discover answers to dozens of questions that have perplexed all of us since we were children, such as why the sky is blue and why the full moon looks largest when it's closer to the horizon. You'll also get invaluable tips on how to become an expert skywatcher yourself and learn everything from how to safely look at the sun during an eclipse to the best times of the year to see specific planets and constellations.

Prepare yourself for a thrilling voyage, after which the sky above your head will never be the same again.

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12 Lectures
  • 1
    Day and Night Skies across All Distances
    Embark on a brief tour of the grandeur of the sky above your head—both near and far—and get a better idea of the broad range of breathtaking objects and phenomena everyone can enjoy. x
  • 2
    The Blue Sky, Clouds, and Lightning
    Why is the color of the sky blue? How does polarization work, and how can it help you see objects in the sky better? What's the difference between cirrocumulus and cirrostratus clouds? Does lightning truly never strike the same place twice? Get answers to these and a host of other questions. x
  • 3
    The Rainbow Family—Sunlight and Water
    Rainbows. Coronas. Cloud iridescence. Strengthen your understanding and appreciation of the science behind these and other colorful phenomena that occur due to the fascinating interaction of water with sunlight. x
  • 4
    Solar Halos—Sunlight and Ice Crystals
    Travel higher up in the atmosphere and discover what happens when sunlight interacts not with raindrops but with frozen ice crystals. After learning how these delicate crystals are formed, you'll examine stunning photography that captures the wonders of everything from solar halos and mock suns to glitter paths and sun pillars. x
  • 5
    The Colors of Sunrise and Sunset
    What is the science behind a majestic sunrise or dramatic sunset? Find out in this lecture on the colors and features that accompany these breathtaking, everyday events. Professor Filippenko reveals the science behind—and offers skywatching tips for—blue moons, the "belt of Venus," alpenglow, green flashes, and more. x
  • 6
    Bright Stars, Constellations, and the Zodiac
    Stars and constellations are some of the most commonly sought-after features of the night sky. Here, learn how to spot such iconic star patterns as the Big Dipper; make sense of the zodiacal constellations; locate some of the sky's brightest stars; and learn just why it is that stars twinkle. x
  • 7
    Viewing the Planets and Their Motions
    How can you tell the difference between a planet and a star? When is the best time to see planets such as Mercury and Jupiter? What's the difference between retrograde and prograde planetary motion? Get the answers to these and other questions in this lecture on spotting each of our solar system's planets. x
  • 8
    The Moon, Phases, and Lunar Eclipses
    Looking up at the moon has always been a favorite pastime on romantic evenings. But there's actually so much more to see and experience when you look with a trained eye. Here, learn everything about the moon's craters and seas, follow its distinct lunar phases, ponder the "moon illusion," and explore lunar eclipses. x
  • 9
    Satellites, Comets, and Meteors
    Artificial satellites such as the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope. Famous comets such as Hale-Bopp, Hyakutake, and McNaught. Brilliant meteor showers and storms, including the Perseids and Leonids. Revel in the science of understanding objects that orbit Earth or the sun and the beauty of witnessing such objects move across our sky. x
  • 10
    Observing Solar Activity and Earth's Auroras
    Explore the inner workings of the sun; learn to look safely at amazing features such as sunspots, solar prominences, and captivating coronas you can see for yourself with the right knowledge and equipment. Also, learn how coronal mass ejections give rise to space weather (including solar wind), possible satellite disruptions and power outages on Earth, and the shimmering auroras of the northern and southern lights. x
  • 11
    Solar Eclipses—Marvelous Coincidences
    In this gorgeously illustrated lecture, follow the spectacular stages of a total solar eclipse, including first contact, totality, and the two "diamond ring" stages. Also, get tips on how best to view these marvelous celestial events—and where and when you can see them in the coming years. x
  • 12
    Celestial Sights When the Night Is Darkest
    In this final lecture, Professor Filippenko reveals some of the breathtaking stars, galaxies, and other phenomena you can see while skywatching under extremely dark conditions, and how to find them. Also, learn how the night sky has given us clues about the birth of the universe—and even our origins. x

Lecture Titles

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Alex Filippenko
Ph.D. Alex Filippenko
University of California, Berkeley

Dr. Alex Filippenko is Professor of Astronomy and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Physical Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his B.A. in Physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his Ph.D. in Astronomy from the California Institute of Technology.

Dr. Filippenko's research accomplishments, documented in more than 500 scientific publications and 600 abstracts and astronomical circulars, are among the most highly cited in the world. Science magazine credited two international teams of astronomers (on which he was the only coauthor contributing to both teams) with the top "Science Breakthrough of 1998" for research on exploding stars (supernovae), which shows that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, propelled by mysterious "dark energy." Professor Filippenko received a share of the 2007 Gruber Cosmology Prize for this discovery, work that went on to receive the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. Professor Filippenko also leads the world's most successful robotic search for exploding stars.

Dr. Filippenko was elected in 2009 to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors accorded to a U.S. scientist. He has also been recognized with several major awards, including the 2010 Richard H. Emmons Award for excellence in the teaching of college-level introductory astronomy for non-science majors from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the 2007 Richtmyer Memorial Award of the American Association of Physics Teachers, the 1997 Robert M. Petrie Prize of the Canadian Astronomical Society, and the 1992 Newton Lacy Pierce Prize of the American Astronomical Society. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2001 and a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar in 2002.

In 2006, he was honored nationally as the "Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

At UC Berkeley, Dr. Filippenko's teaching awards include the Donald S. Noyce Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in the Physical Sciences and the Distinguished Teaching Award. He was also voted the Best Professor on Campus nine times in student polls.

Dr. Filippenko is coauthor of The Cosmos: Astronomy in the New Millennium, now in its 4th edition (2013), and winner of the 2001 Texty Excellence Award for best new textbook in the physical sciences. He has played a prominent role in numerous television documentaries, including about 40 episodes spanning six seasons of The Universe on The History Channel.

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Rated 4.8 out of 5 by 17 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Skywatching This course was much more than I expected. I was looking forward to learning about stars, nebulae, galaxies, and other celestial subjects. There was that, but the first chapters concentrated on those things to look at within our atmosphere and there is so much more to see than I realized. Professor Filippenko's careful and entertaining tour through the day and night skies expanded my awareness immeasurably. A wonderful course for anyone who thinks their eyes are open, but aren't, really. October 8, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by A True Visual Treat I have viewed several “Great Courses” dealing with various aspects of astronomy and astrophysics, including those by Dr. Filippenko on black holes, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson on the “Inexplicable Universe” and Dr. Mark Whittle’s comprehensive course on Cosmology. This short course is different in that it aims to explain common phenomenon in the sky, both near and far, and to foster an understanding and appreciation of these meteorological and celestial events. This course is not as short as it seems, as its 12 lectures average 48 minutes each, rather than the usual 30. For me this required a certain mental adjustment, especially in the early lectures, as roughly the first half of the course features phenomena observed within the earth’s atmosphere, such as clouds, lightning, rainbows, auroras, sunsets, etc. The professor’s lengthy explanations of these nearby yet often dramatic sights may on occasion tax the attention span of the lay members of his audience like myself with a barrage of technical detail encompassing basic meteorology, geometry and physics. Perhaps because I am more familiar with the subject matter, I was more impressed by the second half of the course emphasizing how best to observe the sun, moon, planets, stars and constellations, including many practical tips on how to locate specific planets, stars, comets and nebulae. These later lectures feature spectacular photographs of various celestial events, the most dramatic of which are in the lecture on total solar eclipses, an unforgettable sight for anyone who has witnessed one, as I once did in Africa in 1980. What makes this course particularly enjoyable is Dr. Filippenko’s engaging speaking style, combined with his keen and infectious enthusiasm for the wonders of the night sky and his skill in explaining the science behind celestial phenomena. After viewing this course, I believe I am not alone in feeling the urge to seek out a dark place on a clear night far away from city lights to behold the thousands of observable stars and the luminous arm of our Milky Way galaxy. August 12, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Expand your appreciation of sky sights! Professor Filippenko does a great job of enthusiastically and clearly explaining a wide variety of wondrous sights available to careful skywatchers. About one third of the course is devoted to atmospheric phenomena, so “cosmic” in the subtitle is misleading. Yet those closer sights are more commonly observed and appreciated, so they represent an important aspect of general skywatching. Professor Filippenko's topic list is well-chosen. He consistently imparts a sense of awe. For example, I now have travel plans for days around 8/21/2017, when a total solar eclipse will be visible from various locations across the United States! I highly recommend this course. April 4, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by Watch the peacock strut This course was a huge disappointment to me. Given the "stellar" reviews, and "considering" (con=with, sider=stars) my lifelong interest in all things sidereal, when I viewed the first couple of lectures I had high expectations. My expectations were not met. The material was presented in a condescending manner by a man who struts and mugs at the camera like a peacock. His manner was so annoying that I could not watch the entire lecture series. Not recommended for viewers with any background at all in astronomy. October 7, 2013
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