Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian

Course No. 8122
Professor Don Howard, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame
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Course No. 8122
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Course Overview

In May 1905, an unknown 26-year-old Swiss patent clerk wrote to a friend about four scientific papers he had been working on in his spare time. He casually alluded to one as "revolutionary," and he confidently asserted that another would modify the "theory of space and time." He had not yet started on a fifth paper that would also come out in 1905 and that would propose a surprising and earth-shaking equation, E=mc2.

This industrious young office worker was Albert Einstein, and with these papers he irrevocably changed the face of physics. Eventually, he would achieve fame and influence not only as a scientist but also as a philosopher and a humanitarian, involved with some of the most profound issues of the day. So identified has Einstein become with the changes wrought in science and culture in our era that Time magazine named him the "person of the century" in its December 31, 1999, issue.

Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian, 24 half-hour lectures by award-winning Professor Don Howard of the University of Notre Dame, presents a wide-ranging intellectual biography of this iconic scientist, genius, and champion of social justice.

Think Like Einstein

More than just a biography of Einstein's life, Albert Einstein provides you with an inside look at how this brilliant thinker arrived at his various revolutionary breakthroughs.

One of the secrets of Einstein's success was that he was well read in philosophy, and that guided his approach not only to framing and solving problems in physics but also to interpreting his discoveries in a more universal context. In addition, his philosophical background gave him the independence of judgment necessary to invent a new physics.

Einstein was the clearest of thinkers, able to cut through conventional views to get to the heart of a matter and achieve astonishing discoveries in the process. According to Professor Howard, retracing the thought processes that led to Einstein's ideas is the key to understanding them.

This is the intellectually exciting strategy you follow in Albert Einstein. Guided by Professor Howard, you reason your way to historic insights such as these:

  • Light has both wave- and particle-like properties.
  • Absolute space and absolute time are meaningless concepts.
  • Gravity is caused by the curvature of space-time.

Each of these ideas sparked a scientific revolution. The first led to quantum physics, which is the comprehensive picture of the world below the atomic scale. The second and third are conclusions from the special and general theories of relativity, which this course explains in nontechnical detail.

In the Laboratory of the Mind

A creative thinker from an early age, Einstein had a knack for finding the perfect picture or thought experiment to express even the most arcane scientific ideas—a quality that makes him unusually accessible to the nonscientist. Einstein later said he always thought about a physics problem first in terms of images. He only later translated those pictures into a mathematical formalism.

Here are some of his well-known thought experiments that you investigate in Albert Einstein:

  • Chasing a light beam: As a teenager, Einstein asked himself what would happen if he moved at the speed of light alongside a beam of light. This conceptual exercise held the germ for the special theory of relativity.
  • Einstein's elevator: Einstein recognized that an observer ascending with constant acceleration, as in an ascending elevator, would not be able to distinguish his situation from one in which he was experiencing the effects of gravity, leading to the "equivalence principle" that underlies his general theory of relativity.
  • EPR paradox: Einstein and two collaborators, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, devised a thought experiment that sought to prove quantum mechanics as an incomplete theory and not the final word in fundamental physics.

Albert Einstein features more than 50 animations—many in 3-D—designed specifically for these lectures. The result is a visually rich learning experience that makes Einstein's detailed scientific ideas easy to understand.

The Many Sides of Einstein

Einstein's dynamic life reflects a range of interests and passions that extend beyond the realm of modern physics and into fields like religion, international relations, and social justice. Indeed, Einstein frequently engaged with many of the leading social and political issues of his day. "As Einstein's growing physics reputation drew him onto a larger public stage," notes Professor Howard, "his social and political involvements expanded as well."

The many sides of the man covered in Albert Einstein give you a wealth of insights into his life:

  • Far from being a head-in-the-clouds theoretician, Einstein was an enthusiastic inventor who pioneered a novel airplane wing, a refrigerator without moving parts, and a self-adjusting camera, among other devices.
  • Einstein, a German Jew who fled an increasingly anti-Semitic Germany in 1932, supported the development of a safe haven for displaced Jews in Palestine and of Jewish institutions like Hebrew University. Fearing a large-scale conflict with Palestinian Arabs, however, he did not support a Jewish national state.
  • Theoretical physics in the early 20th century was an emerging field. Einstein's work at the boundaries of science forced him to grapple with the various philosophical issues his work raised. Einstein's philosophies on scientific issues—such as the difference between direct and indirect evidence, the relationship between theory and experience, and the power of mathematical simplicity—were among the most influential of 20th-century science.

Professor Howard closes the course by examining the nature of Einstein's quintessential genius. In a century populated with brilliant scientists, profound philosophers, and selfless humanitarians, how did he come to embody all these qualities and also mean so much more? The rise of the dreamy-looking young man in the patent office in 1905 to the person of the century is worth studying in full.

Einstein: The Whole Man

Professor Howard is uniquely qualified to explore Einstein the whole man, putting Einstein's scientific discoveries into the context of his personal life, his philosophical views, and his outlook on the world. Educated in Physics as an undergraduate, Professor Howard went on to earn a Doctorate in the Philosophy of Science, and he has since devoted his research career to Einstein and his period. Professor Howard has been an assistant editor and a contributing editor for the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, an ongoing series of volumes prepared by the Einstein Papers Project that is shedding new light on all aspects of Einstein's life.

Albert Einstein is a riveting, all-encompassing look at the iconic man who forever altered the way we think about the world. By the conclusion of the course, you'll have become better acquainted with the whole Einstein—his scientific ideas, his personal philosophies, his thought processes, and his impact on both his own time and ours.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Precocious Young Einstein
    The aim of these lectures is to explore Einstein the whole person and the whole thinker. You begin with an overview of the course. Then you look at important events in Einstein's life up to the beginning of his university studies in 1896. x
  • 2
    The Development of the Young Physicist
    This lecture follows Einstein's early life up to his "miracle year" of 1905, covering his university training, his love for fellow student Mileva Maric, their marriage following the birth of their daughter, his fruitless search for an academic job, and his employment by the Swiss patent office. x
  • 3
    The Birth of the Quantum Hypothesis
    By his own account, Einstein's most revolutionary idea of 1905 was that light is made of discrete chunks of electromagnetic energy called light quanta, or photons. You examine the background to this radical idea, most importantly, Max Planck's proposal in 1900 of the quantum hypothesis. x
  • 4
    Background to Special Relativity
    The most celebrated of Einstein's 1905 achievements is his special theory of relativity. You survey the classical physics that relativity overturned, particularly Newton's concept of absolute space, which even before Einstein had critics such as the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach. x
  • 5
    Essentials of Special Relativity
    You take a guided tour of the special theory of relativity, which holds that a system's location and speed is well defined only with respect to a specific frame of reference or state of motion of an observer. This simple change of perspective led to Einstein's signature equation, E=mc2 x
  • 6
    From Bern to Berlin
    Between 1905 and 1914, Einstein went from being an obscure clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern to being one of the most prominent scientists in the world. You follow this remarkable transformation and the toll it took on Einstein's marriage to Mileva. x
  • 7
    Background to General Relativity
    Special relativity is "special" in the sense that it is restricted to observers moving with constant relative velocity. Einstein wanted to extend the theory to include accelerated motion. His great insight was that such a "general" theory would incorporate the phenomenon of gravity. x
  • 8
    Essentials of General Relativity
    According to general relativity, gravity is caused by the curvature of space-time, with surprising implications such as the slowing of clocks in strong gravitational fields and the bending of light passing near a massive object like the sun. The latter prediction led to a famous confirmation of general relativity and made Einstein a world figure. x
  • 9
    From Berlin to Princeton
    Einstein worked in Berlin from 1914 to 1933, arriving in triumph but leaving as a refugee from Nazism. The Berlin years saw the publication and confirmation of general relativity, the receipt of a Nobel Prize, and world travel, including visits to the United States, to which Einstein immigrated in 1933. x
  • 10
    Philosophical Challenge of the New Physics
    Relativity and quantum mechanics presented deep challenges to traditional philosophy. You explore responses by philosophers and the logical positivists, along with Einstein's philosophical objection to the randomness of quantum theory. x
  • 11
    Einstein's Philosophy of Science
    Einstein stressed the crucial role of philosophy in physics, arguing that philosophy gives physicists the independence of judgment needed to make revolutionary innovations. In his own work, Einstein combined a deep respect for experimental evidence with a search for simplicity and beauty. x
  • 12
    Zionism, Pacifism, and Internationalism
    As Einstein's growing physics reputation drew him onto a larger public stage, his social and political involvements expanded, encompassing a lonely protest against German war aims during World War I, an embrace of the Zionist cause, and strident advocacy of pacifism throughout the 1920s. x
  • 13
    Einstein the Inventor and Musician
    Einstein was an avid inventor of devices from airfoils to refrigerators. He consulted with industry about gyrocompasses and with the U.S. Navy about undersea mines. Playing the violin was another passion. Both activities shed light on his work as a theoretical physicist. x
  • 14
    On the Road to the New Quantum Mechanics
    Einstein made many contributions to the development of quantum theory. You focus on his efforts to understand the curious way in which two identical quantum systems, such as two photons, lose their separate identities in a phenomenon called quantum entanglement. x
  • 15
    Quantum Mechanics and Controversy
    Einstein was one of the discoverers of quantum theory, but after the mid-1920s he became its most forceful critic. You examine Einstein's objections and his confrontations with fellow physicist Niels Bohr over what Einstein considered to be fundamental flaws in quantum mechanics. x
  • 16
    Einstein in Princeton—The Lonely Quest
    From 1933 until his death in 1955, Einstein lived in Princeton as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study. His research focused on the lonely and ultimately fruitless quest for a unified field theory that would unite electromagnetism and gravitation. x
  • 17
    Is Quantum Mechanics Complete?
    In 1935, Einstein and two collaborators, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, published what has since become the most frequently cited paper in the history of physics. You explore this celebrated thought experiment, known as the EPR paradox, in nontechnical terms. x
  • 18
    The Expanding Universe
    Einstein's general theory of relativity is the theoretical framework for all contemporary work in cosmology. Black holes, the big bang, an expanding universe—all are implicit in the equations of general relativity. Ironically, Einstein at first mistrusted some of the most dramatic predictions of his own theory. x
  • 19
    Einstein and the Bomb—Science Politicized
    In 1939, Einstein signed a letter to President Roosevelt that launched the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb. Scientists had long advised governments, but this effort represented a fundamental shift in the relationship between science and the state. x
  • 20
    From the Manhattan Project to the Cold War
    Einstein came to regret his role in the development of atomic weapons and spent the last decade of his life trying to rein in the ensuing arms race. One of his last public acts, the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, was arguably the first step toward international cooperation in arms limitation. x
  • 21
    A Lifelong Commitment to Social Justice
    Settling into his new American home in the mid-1930s, Einstein found a new challenge in the fight for racial justice. He took up this and other social causes to such an extent that in the early 1950s FBI director J. Edgar Hoover considered having him deported. x
  • 22
    Cosmic Religion and Jewish Identity
    Einstein wrote often about what he termed "cosmic religion," by which he meant the view that the rational order of nature itself inspires awe and humility akin to the religious spirit. He was strongly influenced in these views by the philosophers Baruch Spinoza and Arthur Schopenhauer. x
  • 23
    Einstein and Modernity
    This lecture explores the larger cultural world that responded so strongly to Einstein and his physics. The spirit of Einstein's reformulation of physical reality is reflected in the artistic experiments of painters such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and novelists such as Lawrence Durrell. x
  • 24
    The Sage of Princeton—Einstein the Icon
    The sheer intellectual brilliance called genius is central to Einstein's iconic status, but the 20th century was populated with many brilliant scientists. Why did Einstein come to mean so much more? The course concludes by trying to capture the essence that made him unique. x

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Your professor

Don Howard

About Your Professor

Don Howard, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame
Dr. Don Howard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and Director of Notre Dame's Graduate Program in History and Philosophy of Science. A graduate of Michigan State University's Honors College and its Lyman Briggs College with a B.Sc. in Physical Science, he earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Philosophy with a specialization in the philosophy of science from Boston University. Professor Howard has served as...
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Reviews

Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 53.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from MY FAVORITE! I simply cannot grow tired of this course! The content is comprehensive and fluid - one never wonders where you are being led. Professor Howard is one of the finest presenters I have had the opportunity to listen to. His calm and concise presentation never leaves the track. Listening to him is like visiting an old friend... you just want to settle back, tuck a comforter around you, and go for the ride! This course is a must-have for any and all Einstein fans, as well as history buffs who find the government/science connection compelling.
Date published: 2011-11-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Science steals the show Einstein’s scientific accomplishments take center stage in this one, and in fact steal the show with its focus in the majority of all lectures. His life and times were more of a side show. This is an unexpectedly challenging and sometimes abstract course, with some material admittedly going over my head, especially the lectures on quantum mechanics. I’m glad I did Understanding the Universe first. One aspect I really loved about the course was that you get an in-depth view not only of his scientific achievements in theoretical physics, but also a smattering of Einstein’s philosophy of science, his political leanings, family life, creativity, and the social/political climate dominating throughout his life. By the end of the course, you really do feel a sense of Einstein’s legacy. In my case, I felt quite satisfied, the same way you feel after a full Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings. The course Guidebook, in outline form, is thick and very well-written. It’s comprehensive in its own right. The Glossary I found myself referring to often, and the Biographical Notes was equally important because there are so many individuals coming and going throughout the course. It’s just amazing how far and wide Einstein reach extends. Dr Howard is an excellent lecturer. He’s articulate and his German sounds really good (a little less so his French). He is not the most animated of lecturers, but he’s your prototypical university lecturer. He uses a lot of rhetorical questions that serve their purpose as anchor points for reflection. He’s very neutral, covering every aspect of Einstein’s life, both the good and the bad, and never sweeps any controversial issues under the rug in order to pay tribute to his hero. One thing you come away with is that Einstein was very much human, just like us, as much as he was a mythologized icon. If I were to choose the best single, individual TGC lecture among all the courses I have, I would no doubt have to consider Lecture 24 of Albert Einstein among the very best TGC has to offer.
Date published: 2011-05-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Many Hats of Einstein This was an excellent biographical treatment full of illuminating details into Einstein's public and private life. The lectures focused primarily on Einstein's scientific breakthroughs, both the well known (relativity, the discovery of photons) and the less well known (Brownian motion, elucidation of certain quantum statistics, support for the existence of atoms). However, the lectures also explored in considerable detail Einstein's humanitarianism, pacifism, democratic socialism, and support of cultural zionism. Overall, the bulk of the lectures follow Einstein's life chronologically, however many of the lectures (7 or 8 of them) actually summarize key theoretical points in relativity and quantum theory. The lectures on the physics were well done, emphasizing Einstein's famous thought experiments and the insights that they afforded. These particular lectures provide a nice complement to another excellent teaching company course, Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution, without any significant redundancy. That course is well worth viewing if the science lectures here have whetted your appetite. One strength of this course are the exploration of Einstein's multifaceted genius including his philosophical background and the philosophers who were important influences for him (Kant, Hume, Schopenhauer). This was an insight I had never previously heard in regard to Einstein--he felt that his appreciation of philosophy helped him be a more original thinker. Einstein is imminantly quotable, and there are some of his best quotes here, in perfect contexts, including some that I had not heard previously. I especially liked the lecture near the end of the course on Einstein and Modernity that attempted to analyze where Einstein fit into the scheme of premodern (conventional), modern, and postmodern science and thinkers. The conclusion was an interesting one, that he was a "reluctant modern." Professor Howard is clearly a great admirer of Einstein, and while some of Einstein's human shortcomings are mentioned, not much time is spent on this matter. However, I certainly did not feel that this detracted from the course as a whole. Another great strength of this course is focusing not only on Einstein's incredible breakthroughs in science, but also his extremely fertile mistakes. Even when Einstein was on the wrong track, he thought about things so originally, that those theories too led to a plethora of groundbreaking research and theories by others. One quote that was not in this course, but which I believe summarizes how Professor Howard feels about Einstein (as do I) is actually from one of Einstein's favorite philosophers, Shopenhauer: "Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see." I think that this says it all.
Date published: 2010-05-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Biography I eagerly looked forward to each lecture in this wonderful biography. After completing the Teaching Company courses "Particle Physics" and "Quantum Mechanics" (both fine courses!) this biography of Einstein put the icing on the cake. Knowing about the gestalt of the time of Einstein gave me a better appreciation and understanding of his work. I enjoyed knowing about Mileva, his first wife, and her intellectual achievements. Personal information about male scientists or other famous public figures is seldom discussed and I found the professor's coverage of this information very interesting. I never realized that Einstein was a "chick magnet" because of his fame, but this now makes a lot of sense after finishing the course and reading about how respected and revered he was after his divorce from Mileva; plus the fact that he married his cousin is an interesting revelation. I have been inspired by the course to seek out other literature on Einstein's life. Einstein's humanitarian achievements are also very interesting. I was taught in grade school that "Einstein was responsible for the atomic bomb." This is patently false and I was happy to see this covered in this course as well as others, plus the outside reading that I have done. I also found very valuable the introduction of the other scientists and their theories which influenced Einstein. After finishing this course, I was inspired to start the course "Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution" which I am now studying. I have to say that this combination of courses has helped me to understand how contemporary physics evolved.
Date published: 2010-05-17
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Dummy Pulpit I ordered this set from the Teaching Company, hoping to receive a non-biased, educated assessment of the life, thinking, and times of Albert Einstein. The series started as a modestly historical narrative of the early Einstein, and included discussion of his thinking in physics, but also in philosophy and politics. Einstein apparently felt modestly prejudiced against, owing to the fact that he was a Jew, surviving in a primarily non-Jewish culture. His success in physics came with shaky fits, having problems with the higher institutes of learning in Switzerland, but eventually ending in the pinnacle of his career while in Berlin, before moving to America in 1933 at the time of the rise of Hitler. Howard is willing to admit that the social life of Einstein left much to be desired, mistreating several wives, and essentially abandoning his children. Howard excuses Einstein, noting that he was a great socialist and humanitarian, thus making up for his otherwise despicable lifestyle. Though a number of the early lectures discusses the innovations of physics by Einstein, you are also left with the notion that Einstein burned out early, vacillating frequently when theories didn't fit his personal philosophy. His greatest despair was his development of the science of quantum mechanics, only to later disown it as it didn't fit his personal world view. He is like Napoleon-a brilliant youth followed by a not so brilliant middle and older age. By the 10th lecture, this series became quite worrisome, in that the lectures became a dummy pulpit for Howard to expound his own socialist belief system. This is unlike many of the Teaching Company lecturers, who do a good job of hiding a philosophical or political bias in order to objectively discuss a though system or world view. Howard fails miserably to discuss the various ramifications of Einstein's political and philosophic stances, arguing both the pro's and con's of the various social solutions Einstein offers. Thus,Howard betrays his own calling as an academician, forfeiting his claim as an intellectual, in order to push a social agenda that Einstein supposedly espoused. By the end of the lecture series, you are left wondering how accurate Howard remained to the true thinking of Einstein. You are left with multiple holes. I would have loved more discussion of Einstein at Princeton, yet you hear nothing save for his involvement with socialist issues, anti-war issues, and government interactions during the second world war. Oddly, Howard barely takes Einstein to task for his horrid inconsistency for advocating the development of the atom bomb, only since he presumed it would be used against the German state that mistreated him. Howard unnecessarily idolizes Einstein to the point of loosing an objective focus for discussion of the man, making the entire series very wearisome to listen to. I simply could not recommend this series to anybody for a serious discussion of the thought and life of Albert E.
Date published: 2010-02-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Einstein is an iconic character in our contemporary world, but how much do we really know about him? This is an outstanding course, and i highly recommend it. The lecturer is engaging and clever. The content is revealing and balanced. I felt I knew so much more about the life and context of Einstein by the end.
Date published: 2009-08-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Much More Than A Biography You've probably seen the two-hour Einstein "special" that's been on the cable channels. Probably like you, I wondered how you could fill 12 hours about this man. Well, if you just look at the lecture titles, you'll see this is much more than a simple biography. And if you've missed the cable show, let me assure you that Einstein was not at all the nerdy scientist you might think. There's a facinating story here about a facinating man, and Prof. Howard tells it all. Noting that this course is listed in both the Philosophy and Science sections of the TTC website, you can see that Einstein was much more than just a scientist. He was also a philosopher and a humanitarian. Prof. Howard will illuminate these important facets of Einstein's life excellently and in detail. And along the way, he dispels some myths that have popped up over the years. And, there's a lot of history in here. Einstein, like all of us, was shaped by the people and events going on around him. And during his lifetime, there were plenty of events. You'll also be introduced to those who were close to Einstein, both personally and professionally, again in detail and excellently presented. But what might surprise you is the amount of physics in this course. Prof. Howard gives terrific high-level overviews of special relativity (2 lectures), general relativity (2 lectures), and Einstein's significant work in quantum physics (4 lectures), and the discussions include a general meaning of some of the equations involved. Personally, I especially appreciated Prof. Howard's discussion of quantum entanglement - it didn't fully clarify it for me, but I'm a lot closer than what I was. (For you non-scientists, don't let the physics dissuade you. Prof. Howard's descriptions are at the conceptual level and non-technical. Equations are shown and described in passing only. What you will get are excellent layman's descriptions of some of the most important physics revelations of the 20th century.) The best scientist of the 20th century was also one of its most interesting people. It's all here.
Date published: 2009-07-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Multifaceted Examination of Einstein This course provides an excellent examination Einstein the man, as opposed to Einstein the icon. Einstein embodied many contradictions. He could be very cruel in his personal life, and yet distinguish himself as a leading humanitarian of the 20th century. He demonstrated exceptional brilliance, yet succumbed to critical flaws in some of assumptions regarding physics. Dr. Howard does a really commendable job looking at Albert Einstein, who was simultaneously a scientist, philosopher, and humanitarian. I appreciated how Dr. Howard seemed to provide an even-handed look at Einstein, focusing on both his virtues and his flaws. The course really helped to put Einstein back into perspective -- after so much historical revision -- allowing us to see Einstein's contributions within the context of his times. To me, the most interesting lecture was on "Einstein and Modernity," which showed how Einstein, for all his visionary genius, was not able to fully embrace the new realities revealed in quantum physics. It seems Einstein was less a full blown revolutionary thinker as much as a bridge between the old and new physics. Excellent treatment of a complicated man living in complicated times.
Date published: 2009-07-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Truly a "Great" Course A superb course, even for someone like me who didn't have a clue about physics and quantum mechanics. Dr. Howard’s lectures are fast-paced and cover great swaths of information. By the end of the course, I had a pretty good idea of who Einstein was and what he meant for the modern world. The lectures combine into something resembling a hologram: we can see Einstein from the bottom up, top down, sideways, and through him; we know his place in the world, and how he profoundly changed it (and how the world changed him!). Personally, listening to the lectures had the added benefit of making me begin to think differently and (hopefully) more creatively -- and made me less cautious about taking bold risks in problem solving in general.
Date published: 2009-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is really a great course especially if you already have some knowledge of 20th century physics and Einstein. I think to mixing up personal and biographical lectures with science and technical lectures might make it not an ideal first course on these topics. Having said that, the course is very thorough and the course booklet is an excellent supplement to the lectures. The bibliography is especially helpful. Also, I found it useful to be able to pick out certain scientific lectures for review after completeing the course. It would certainly help to have listened to Dr. Wolfson's TC course on Relativity or to have read Walter Isaacson's recent biography of Einstein. Or you can do what I did - listen to it twice - it's that good.
Date published: 2009-01-21
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