12 Essential Scientific Concepts

Course No. 1126
Professor Indre Viskontas, Ph.D.
University of San Francisco; San Francisco Conservatory of Music
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Course No. 1126
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Course Overview

Cosmology. Neurology. Genetics. Chemistry. These are just a few of many fascinating branches of the scientific world ripe for exploration. But because science is such a vast arena of knowledge, people looking for a better grasp of its secrets often wonder where to begin. The answer: with the essentials.

Science’s most vital concepts and ideas—some of which have been around for centuries, others of which we’ve only uncovered in recent decades—make the perfect starting point for a deeper dive into regions of the scientific world you’ve long wanted to take a closer look at. Whether it’s evolution, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, or the nature of matter, these and other eye-opening concepts are all connected by the profound role they play in our everyday lives and in our larger understanding of the world.

By narrowing your approach to the expansiveness of science and drilling down to some of its essentials, you’ll

  • grasp the true nature, challenge, and excitement of scientific inquiry;
  • shed light on the scientific marvels of today and tomorrow, from nanotechnology to artificial intelligence;
  • develop a solid foundation of knowledge that will put more advanced areas of science within your reach; and
  • enhance your sense of wonder at the hidden marvels of everything from driving to work to creating new memories.

With 12 Essential Scientific Concepts, you can finally satisfy your desire for scientific inquiry in a way that makes this enormous field accessible, understandable, and undeniably captivating. Indre Viskontas, an award-winning cognitive neuroscientist affiliated with the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, has a knack for making hard science clear to laypeople. She boils down the scientific world into 12 key concepts every educated person should know. Devoting two lectures to each concept to give you more time to engage with it, her 24-lecture course is your introduction to everything from the behavior of subatomic particles to the latest theories about the Big Bang. Concepts that may have eluded you in school, that you may not be familiar with, or that you simply never appreciated for their intricate beauty are now brought to vivid life in a way that sticks. Welcome to the world of science—reduced to its powerful essence.

Explore 12 of Science’s Bedrock Ideas

This course is your chance to get a single, accessible way to explore essential concepts from a broad range of scientific areas. Professor Viskontas offers you an engaging and accessible look at key building blocks of scientific knowledge.

  • The modular brain: With so many intricate, scattered parts and actions going into how human beings perceive the world, how is it that we experience reality as a seamless, coherent story? This is where the mind-boggling concept of modularity and coherence comes into play, which probes how our conscious experience emerges.
  • Brain plasticity: Scientists now understand that our brains act like plastic, in that they can be molded over time into many different shapes—a concept that’s caused a radical paradigm shift in the field of neuroscience. From breaking bad habits to learning new ideas, brain plasticity encompasses the tiniest modifications to a single brain cell to sweeping changes across neural circuits.
  • Quantum theory: How do we explain the behavior of particles smaller than an atom? The answer lies in the concepts of quantum mechanics, which operate within a unique set of mathematical rules and formulas different from those in classical physics. And, as you’ll learn, the ramifications of quantum theory, in everything from robots to supercomputers, are astounding.
  • Emergence: The quest to understand how complex systems work lies at the heart of the concept of emergence, where simple agents (following simple rules) together perform complex feats impossible for any individual unit to accomplish on its own. Where can you see emergence at work around you? It’s in everything from migrating flocks of birds to the layout of your neighborhood. But it may explain human consciousness as well.

You’ll also investigate other essential concepts: life, evolution, genetics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, the Big Bang, and the nature of matter. For each of them, Professor Viskontas gives you an expert’s introduction to their key ideas, the math and science behind them, the great minds responsible for uncovering them, and their relevant applications to (sometimes surprising) areas of life.

Learn Eye-Opening Scientific Facts

Every lecture of 12 Essential Scientific Concepts is filled with a sense of wonder and awe at the knowledge that scientific inquiry has brought us. Just as memorable as the concepts you explore are the eye-opening facts you’ll learn along the way.

  • Hurricanes transform heat into work much more efficiently than a car or jet does; so much so that a tropical cyclone can release heat energy at a rate of 10 to 15 watts per day—about 70 times the daily world energy consumption, or the equivalent of setting off a nuclear bomb every 20 minutes for the life of the storm.
  • The Big Bounce, a possible alternate theory for the origin of the universe, posits that before the Big Bang, there was no singularity but instead a tiny, compressed universe that preceded it. So instead of a beginning of everything, there could just be an infinite loop, of which we occupy a small part and during which the universe expands and contracts for eternity.
  • One possible explanation for the emergence of the theory of mind (the recognition that other people have thoughts, desires, and goals just as we do) lies in so-called “mirror neurons” that encourage babies to mimic other people’s actions. These specific neurons also offer neurologists a solid case study for how sentience and self-awareness might emerge from simple cells.

Spark Your Curiosity about Science

Regardless of how complex the concepts may appear at first, Professor Viskontas always takes care to present each one in a clear and concise way that will inform and delight you. She brings her remarkable teaching talent as well as an undeniable passion for sharing the wonders of science with an audience eager to learn.

An experienced observer of human behavior, Dr. Viskontas has published groundbreaking work on the neural basis of memory and creativity and has won numerous research awards. And as a professor of music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, she is pioneering the application of neuroscience to musical training and performance.

Accompanying you on this exploration are hundreds of informative visual elements to aid in your understanding, including green screen technology, helpful in-studio demonstrations, and explanatory 3-D graphics and animations. These captivating enhancements add an even greater level of depth and clarity to 12 Essential Scientific Concepts, giving you the opportunity to probe the invisible life of living cells, to tour the tiniest corners of the human brain, and even to visit the universe seconds after its birth.

Above all, Professor Viskontas has crafted this course to excite you for the countless possibilities ahead. “Science doesn’t reduce our imagination, it expands it,” she says. “Instead of quenching your curiosity, I hope I’ve sparked it—because there’s so much more to explore.”

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Miracle of Life
    To truly understand what makes life special, you have to understand the fundamental makeup of life. In this first lecture, investigate the basic chemistry of living organisms, from the fundamental importance of water and carbon to the critical functions of proteins—the molecules that allow cells to survive, reproduce, and adapt. x
  • 2
    The Organization of Life
    Turn now to cells and the intricate organization of life. As you take an in-depth tour of eukaryotic cells (the kind your body is made of), you’ll learn how to make sense of mitochondria, lysosomes, and other cell parts. You’ll also see cellular organization at work in everything from making proteins to generating energy. x
  • 3
    Evolution—The Tireless Tinkerer
    Today, Charles Darwin’s landmark theory of evolution is biology’s fundamental organizing principle. So how did this revolutionary idea come about, and what were its roots? What scientific evidence proves the fundamental importance of evolution? What do antibiotics reveal about how the tireless tinkering of natural selection works in everyday life? x
  • 4
    Other Mechanisms of Evolution
    Explore some alternative mechanisms through which species can change, including genetic drift and gene flow, and the key role allele frequency plays in our understanding of evolution. You’ll also examine the Hardy-Weinberg principle, used by evolutionary scientists to determine whether a population is actually evolving, and which mechanisms are driving the evolution. x
  • 5
    DNA and Heritability
    Professor Viskontas takes you back to the birth of genetics through the pioneering work of Gregor Mendel. Then, she shows you how to understand DNA as a simple code read by cells to produce new cellular components. And finally, she breaks down the complexities of how genes express themselves: through the generation of proteins. x
  • 6
    Epigenetics, Mutations, and Gene Insertion
    It turns out that our genes aren’t fixed but change across our lifespans. In this fascinating lecture, investigate three major ways in which that happens: epigenetics, the modification of gene expression through environmental changes; mutations, which involve alterations in the genetic code; and gene insertion, in which viruses play a surprising role. x
  • 7
    The Illusion of Coherence—How We See
    The way you see is modular—but your consciousness is coherent. How is this possible? To answer this perplexing question, you’ll explore the biology of the eye and investigate the curious “binding problem” at the heart of the intersection between neural physiology, cognition, and the philosophy of consciousness. x
  • 8
    Acoustic Perception Deconstructed
    First, get a better understanding of how our ears are built, and how that construction affects the hearing process. Then, learn why hearing loss offers the perfect demonstration of just how complex this process is. Finally, consider the essential subjectivity of pitch and how hearing and sight interact with one another. x
  • 9
    Our Changing Brain
    Science has revealed that our brains actually change shape over time. But how? Where in the brain does this occur? How are memories created? What is the relationship between brain plasticity and learning (or unlearning) skills and habits? These are just four of the many questions you’ll encounter in this first lecture on neuroplasticity. x
  • 10
    Plasticity, Brain Training, and Beyond
    Delve deeper into the implications of neuroplasticity, and how we can harness its power to stave off the cognitive effects of aging, recover from disease, and master complex skills. The secrets lie in specific parts of the brain, like the hippocampus and specific proteins, like the brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. x
  • 11
    Magnetism and Its Magic
    Magnetism is undoubtedly a strange aspect of the scientific world. Here, Professor Viskontas reveals what we know (and have yet to uncover) about magnets and how they work. You’ll learn what makes a magnet magnetic, how spinning electrons create magnetic fields, the secrets of ferromagnetism, and much more. x
  • 12
    Electrical Forces, Fields, and Circuits
    To truly understand magnetism, you have to understand its cousin: electricity. First, get a primer on the basics of electricity. Then, explore the concept of electric potential (a combination of an object’s electric charge and its position to other charged objects) and find out how electric circuits actually work in the human body and beyond. x
  • 13
    Thermodynamics—Heat, Energy, and Work
    Explore the concept of power in the inanimate world—as predicted through the three fascinating laws of thermodynamics (which describe the relationship between heat and work). Along the way, you’ll understand how an ideal engine works and witness thermodynamics in action through the famous examples of steam and internal combustion engines. x
  • 14
    Metabolism—Energy in the Cell
    See how the laws of thermodynamics apply to metabolism, the energy exchanges between cells that keep us alive. Explore the inner workings of metabolism with detailed investigations of photosynthesis and cellular respiration. Learn how metabolism plays a role in today’s metabolic engineering, a process by which we harness single-celled organisms to create useful products. x
  • 15
    Fluid Mechanics—Pressure, Buoyancy, Flow
    Professor Viskontas offers you a clear explanation of how aerodynamics (or fluid mechanics) works. Central to this illuminating lecture: the opportunity to finally make sense of the fundamentals of this scientific concept, including buoyant force, the relationship between pressure and depth, Bernoulli’s equation, and the equation of continuity. x
  • 16
    Navigation and Propulsion in Fluids
    How has our greater scientific understanding of fluid mechanics given us the tools to move (and dominate) the land, sea, and air? How do we power the machines that allow us to do so? What’s the difference between form drag and skin friction? What’s actually happening when your plane hits turbulence? x
  • 17
    The Big Bang That Didn’t
    Travel back to the very start of time and navigate the murky—but undeniably eye-opening—science behind the Big Bang. As you evaluate this scientific theory by considering the evidence available, you’ll also ponder three ways the universe could end: the Big Crunch, the Big Freeze, and the Big Rip. x
  • 18
    The Four Forces of Nature
    Explore the four fundamental forces of nature, which scientists believe have guided the formation, expansion, and essence of our universe since it began. Not only will you learn the nuances of the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and gravity—you’ll learn the practical implications this knowledge has given us. x
  • 19
    The Elements of Everything
    Break down the elements of the periodic table and discover how it explains why elements behave the way they do—and points the way to elements that we have yet to discover. Afterward, peek inside the atom and explore subatomic particles, including fermions and the long-elusive Higgs boson. x
  • 20
    Looks like a Particle, Acts like a Wave
    Is light a wave or a particle? To find the answer, comb through revolutionary ideas by Max Planck and Albert Einstein to encounter the wave-particle duality (a paradox best captured by the famous Heisenberg principle). Then, investigate some of the applications of this duality, specifically through the development and use of lasers. x
  • 21
    Quanta, Uncertainty, and a Cat
    Quantum mechanics is full of strange contradictions, including a cat that is simultaneously alive and dead. Professor Viskontas introduces you to the Copenhagen Interpretation—the most popular (though still not universally accepted) way to think about this field. You’ll also consider some of quantum mechanics’ remarkable applications, from nanoscience to quantum computing. x
  • 22
    String Theory, Membranes, and the Multiverse
    What exactly is string theory? What can M-theory and the behavior of black holes reveal about it? How does the theory of Loop Quantum Gravity explain how gravity works at the quantum level? Answers to all this and more are here in this lecture on a mind-bending scientific concept. x
  • 23
    Emergence—Simple Rules, Complex Systems
    The science of emergence explains how simple agents together perform complex feats that are impossible for individual agents to accomplish on their own. Consider what emergence can tell us about seemingly chaotic scenarios through several case studies from wildlife, including ant colonies and flocks of birds. x
  • 24
    Order out of Chaos
    Continue your look at the most interesting ideas in emergence. First, learn about artificial intelligence and social robotics. Then, ponder the rise of the theory of mind and human self-awareness. Finally, discover how modern cities are emergent structures—and how we play the role of the simple agents that make them function. x

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 184-page printed course guidebook
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  • 184-page course synopsis
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Your professor

Indre Viskontas

About Your Professor

Indre Viskontas, Ph.D.
University of San Francisco; San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Dr. Indre Viskontas is a Cognitive Neuroscience Affiliate with the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, where she has studied the emergence of creativity in patients with dementia.Dr. Indre Viskontas is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco and Professor of Sciences and Humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she is pioneering the...
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12 Essential Scientific Concepts is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 64.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Older Retired Reviewer Professor Viskontas is a Lecturer I wished I had when I was enduring University life so many years ago...Her presentation is enjoyable, entertaining, and highly informative...The course is a servey of probably entry level science with a few nuggets of higher level science but well within the understanding of most...I highly suggest one get the course...
Date published: 2019-08-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from will keep my grandnephews busy summer vacation I will be watching this on my digital library as it is one of the many DVDs I bought for grands. I am so glad that the Great Courses enables my watching and their learning.
Date published: 2019-06-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Easily clarifies key concepts and every educated person should watch these videos.
Date published: 2019-03-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Balanced coverage of many scientific concepts This is the second course I've completed by Dr. Viskontas, and once again, it was very satisfying and enjoyable. She is professional, enthusiastic, and often points out what science does not yet know, along with what science has discovered. Most of the topics are related to her specialty, neuroscience. But I also got the impression that she has advanced knowledge in the other topics, such as electricity, magnetism, etc. She presents the topics clearly and in a well organized manner. There are often many new terms, so one would be advised to replay lectures if one cannot keep up with the often somewhat complex explanations. The on screen graphics help a lot, so the video version is recommended. I especially enjoyed the last lecture about emergent theories, which can help explain how order can sometimes come out of chaos, with examples being ant colonies, schools of fish, even the development of the City of San Francisco. This is not a simple course, but careful attention can bring the viewer ample rewards.
Date published: 2018-12-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from So disappointing ~ great potential, but... Sorry, but the deluge of seemingly endless names and terms was far too overwhelming & confusing for me: seemed like an impressive listing of hard-to-pronounce chemicals, actions, procedures, situations etc, but simply too, too much, made the first six lectures terribly boring, despite this lady's upbeat presentation. The extreme overkill of technical terms continued throughout the course; most were brand-new to me, but I am not an expert in any of the fields. The lectures on the eye and ear are standard stuff, very competently done, easy to follow. The talks on neuro-plasticity were most illuminating... mind you, it wasn't news to me that if you don't keep up practice in a highly skilled arena, you will lose ability! I found the lecture on magnetism convoluted & complex: somewhat puzzling, really ~ and I thought I already understood magnetism. Oh well, we move on to electricity and a far more interesting lecture. Other lectures I'd put in the OK category, but overall this series did not impress me too favourably and I'll be selling it & moving on.
Date published: 2018-11-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent presentation This is an excellent presentation of a variety of interesting scientific subjects. The lecturer kept me interested throughout the course. Recommended for listeners with a little scientific background but not absolutely necessary.
Date published: 2018-08-15
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Below average by Great Courses standards I only buy Great Courses in audio format and listen to them while on my 1-hour walks. Most science courses are not suited for audio-only, including this one. Many chapters of "12 Essential Scientific Concepts" are incomprehensible, like the biochemistry of protein synthesis via DNA & RNA. The others are of mediocre quality.
Date published: 2018-08-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A stimulating and thoroughly enjoyable course! I had previously enjoyed Dr. Viskontas' 'Brain Myths', and so I was perhaps predisposed to high expectations with this course. I was NOT disappointed! Without exception, each lecture was pleasure to listen to - a characteristic that is essential if one is to fully absorb the intellectual content. Although I was familiar with much of the cosmology, quantum mechanics and classical physics that Indre presented, the early lectures on neuroscience provided me with a great deal of new and exciting material. I would heartily recommend the course to anyone with a desire to increase - or, indeed, refresh - their understanding of contemporary science.
Date published: 2018-05-12
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