Black Holes Explained

Course No. 1841
Professor Alex Filippenko, Ph.D.
University of California, Berkeley
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Course No. 1841
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Course Overview

Imagine a region in space where the force of gravity is so strong that nothing—not even light—can escape. A region with physical conditions so extreme that they have not yet been reproduced in any terrestrial laboratory. A region so dense that an object as tiny as a walnut would have the same mass as our entire planet.

This phenomenon—first formed in the equations of Einstein and popularized in the stories of science-fiction authors—is a black hole: one of the most exotic, mind-boggling, and profound subjects in astrophysics.

Black holes are at the heart of some of the most intriguing phenomena in the universe. Not only that, they are ideal gateways to fundamental and cutting-edge concepts in astronomy, including the following:

  • General relativity: Einstein's general theory of relativity provides the framework for understanding black holes, in which the warping of both space and time is so great that they are effectively cut off from the rest of the universe.
  • Monsters at the heart of galaxies: Detailed studies of the centers of galaxies reveal that supermassive black holes are common, with masses of millions to billions of suns. Nearly every large galaxy has one.
  • Wormholes: According to general relativity, black holes may be connected to passages through space-time known as wormholes. The jury is still out on whether they exist and whether they would allow time travel and trips to other universes.
  • Is the universe like a hologram? Quantum theory suggests that information is not lost inside a black hole but instead is encoded around it like a hologram—a phenomenon that may characterize the universe as a whole!

Indeed, the idea that the universe itself has properties similar to black holes shows that these objects play a pivotal role at all scales: from the truly cosmic to the subatomic realm, where theory suggests the existence of mini-black holes that may have been created in the aftermath of the big bang and that could be produced in the latest generation of particle accelerators.

Nearly everyone has heard of black holes, but few people outside of complex scientific fields understand their true nature and their implications for our universe. Black Holes Explained finally makes this awe-inspiring cosmological subject graspable, with 12 lavishly illustrated lectures by veteran Great Courses Professor Alex Filippenko, a distinguished astronomer and award-winning teacher at the University of California, Berkeley.

Travel into a Black Hole

No movie, novel, or other fictional treatment of black holes matches Professor Filippenko's absorbing presentation of the actual science behind these amazing objects. In Lectures 8 and 9 he uses computer simulations created by fellow astronomers to conduct a virtual tour around and into a supermassive black hole, and then through a wormhole to another universe. Among the features you investigate are these:

  • Einstein ring: As you approach a black hole, the starlight behind it spectacularly bends in a kaleidoscopic effect called gravitational lensing. This phenomenon can produce a series of halos known as Einstein rings.
  • Photon sphere: Closer to a black hole, you come to a zone where an object must orbit at the speed of light to avoid falling in. Here, light can move in circular orbits and, in principle, you can look forward and see the back of your head.
  • Event horizon: Continuing your plunge, you reach a boundary called the event horizon. Once you cross it, you can't return. Anyone watching from outside sees time come to a standstill, as you appear to stop and motionlessly fade from view.
  • Singularity: After crossing the event horizon, you are only a minute away from the singularity, the hypothetical point of infinite density. Powerful tidal forces squeeze and stretch your body, until you are ultimately crushed to oblivion.

Mission Invisible

Recently elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Filippenko has devoted much of his research career to black holes, discovering some of the best evidence for the existence of stellar-mass black holes in the Milky Way Galaxy, and participating in studies of supermassive black holes using the Hubble Space Telescope.

Drawing on extensive graphics, including hundreds of stunning astronomical images, Dr. Filippenko shows how scientists have been able to read the evidence to surmise a great deal about objects that are inherently invisible. Among the most dramatic clues are high-energy beams of radiation that were first detected by spy satellites in the 1960s. These powerful "gamma-ray bursts" were long a mystery, but they are now thought to be the dying gasps of massive stars in distant galaxies, collapsing to form black holes.

Dr. Filippenko also dispels several myths about black holes, such as that they are "cosmic vacuum cleaners," drawing in matter from afar with irresistible force. In fact, if the sun were compressed to form a black hole, there would be no effect on the orbits of the planets. Similarly, fears that mini-black holes created by particle accelerators will grow and devour the Earth have no basis in physics.

In popular usage, a black hole is a place of utter emptiness. But in this engaging course, you learn about how there is much more to them than that. Astronomers have brought black holes out of the shadows to reveal that they are a widespread and vital phenomenon in the universe with unexpected implications for all scales of reality. Black holes are intriguingly counterintuitive, gratifyingly comprehensible, and surprisingly relevant to our overall understanding of the universe—as you will discover in Black Holes Explained.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    A General Introduction to Black Holes
    Widely featured in novels, movies, and other media, black holes are not just entertaining plot devices, they're real. Learn how the idea of black holes was proposed more than two centuries ago, and how more recently Einstein's general theory of relativity gave a firm theoretical basis for them. x
  • 2
    The Violent Deaths of Massive Stars
    Discover how black holes can form from stars that are much more massive than the sun. After exhausting their nuclear fuel, these behemoths end in a colossal explosion called a supernova, leaving behind a superdense neutron star, or in some cases something even denser: a black hole. x
  • 3
    Gamma-Ray Bursts—The Birth of Black Holes
    Trace the story of gamma-ray bursts. Long a mystery, these intense eruptions of high-energy radiation from random spots in the sky are now thought to be associated with the formation of black holes in distant galaxies. Their visibility from so far away means they are truly titanic explosions. x
  • 4
    Searching for Stellar-Mass Black Holes
    If black holes emit no light, how are they detected? Investigate the different clues that establish strong evidence for black holes. For example, a star orbiting an unseen object that exceeds the 3-solar-mass limit for neutron stars is probably circling a black hole. x
  • 5
    Monster of the Milky Way and Other Galaxies
    This lecture presents the most compelling evidence to date for black holes—found in the core of most galaxies. There, stars and gas clouds typically orbit at high speeds, signaling the presence of a central, supermassive black hole, millions to billions of times the mass of the sun. x
  • 6
    Quasars—Feasting Supermassive Black Holes
    Quasars are another astronomical mystery explained by black holes. Explore the history of these star-like objects that long baffled astronomers, until observers realized they were seeing matter falling into supermassive black holes during the early era of galaxy formation. x
  • 7
    Gravitational Waves—Ripples in Space-Time
    Gravity waves are an unexplored new window for studies of black holes. Learn how these hard-to-detect vibrations are the predicted ripples in the fabric of space-time that should result from violent phenomena such as the merging of two black holes. x
  • 8
    The Wildest Ride in the Universe
    What happens if you fall into a black hole? Take a wild ride into the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy with a vivid computer simulation showing the strange effects you would experience before being crushed to incredible density. x
  • 9
    Shortcuts through the Universe and Beyond?
    Mathematically, black holes seem to connect our universe with others through a gateway called an Einstein-Rosen bridge—nicknamed a wormhole by physicist John Wheeler, who also coined the term black hole. See a computer simulation of what passage through a wormhole would be like. x
  • 10
    Stephen Hawking and Black Hole Evaporation
    Learn why black holes may not be completely black. In 1975, physicist Stephen Hawking showed that they can evaporate via a quantum tunneling process, giving off a slow trickle of quantum particles before eventually ending in an explosion of gamma rays. x
  • 11
    Black Holes and the Holographic Universe
    The "no-hair" theorem says that black holes are utterly simple and preserve almost no information about what went into them. Discover why some physicists believe that the supposedly lost information is contained just outside the black hole in a form that resembles a hologram—and that the universe as a whole may display the same property. x
  • 12
    Black Holes and the Large Hadron Collider
    Professor Filippenko closes by looking at the possibility that a new particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider will produce microscopic black holes. Discover why there is no danger that they will devour the Earth, and why there is no risk from any known black holes in space. x

Lecture Titles

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What's Included

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Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 83-page printed course guidebook

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 83-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Timeline

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Your professor

Alex Filippenko

About Your Professor

Alex Filippenko, Ph.D.
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...
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Black Holes Explained is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 98.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent Visual Demonstrations! I can tell the instructor really loves his job. He seems to be very passionate about astronomy. I really like the props that he uses for visual materials and demonstrations; they really help out a lot with understanding some of the material. He goes through the material as if you're taking a college class on astronomy, or even astrophysics. I kind of got the sense that I needed more of a foundation in one of those 2 subjects as a prerequisite, in order to follow along with the contents of this course. It's not bad; it explained some things about black holes that I never knew before, but it didn't completely answer all of my questions. It helps put everything in perspective regarding how small the Earth really is in comparison with other celestial bodies in our Universe. I found it interesting all the times when he explained the mass of a singularity, and when he explained how jets form in relation to the accretion disk.
Date published: 2020-11-02
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Haven't had a chance to view it yet. I would like to write a review after I've viewed the course. Check back on a few months.
Date published: 2020-04-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Check dates before buying ANY lecture This course is given by a gifted lecturer, who is able to maintain human connection with a remote viewer. I give the course a five (dark) stars I took one star away because of the failure of The Great Courses to find a way to update science lectures. This one is from 2009. The Higgs Boson was since discovered, Steven Hawking died, gravity waves were discovered, merging black holes were detected. There were courses in astronomy that were outdated and I won't buy anymore science lectures without checking the date. I would not have bought this if I knew it was eleven years old. I wouldn't mind some outdated information if the company add updates as a bonus lecture.
Date published: 2020-03-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Amazing I just read the course booklet and found it very helpful. However, there are a lot of terms that are not explained very well. I guess what impressed the most was the scope of the material. And the amazing ability of our scientists to develop ways to reach out to the enormous skyscape. I cannot even imagine what it must be like to see and learn about the "sky-world".One of these days I will actually take the course by watching the video.
Date published: 2020-02-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good course if you are curious about black holes It is a simple introduction to black holes. It is well written and if you do not have a degree in physics, it is for you. easy to understand, and like always professor phlippenco is fun to watch and listen to.
Date published: 2018-08-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Overview of a Hard Topic If you examine all the offerings from "The Great Courses" you'll note there are 3 with Black Holes in their titles. Two are by Professor Benjamin Shumacher and one by Professor Alex Fillipenko. I have watched almost all of the three. If black holes is truly what you're interested in, this is probably your best choice. Dr. Shumacher's courses actually have other main interests. His course on "Black Holes, Tides and Curved Spacetime: Understanding Gravity" is best viewed as a course on gravity, with a little bit about black holes thrown in. It's probably appropriate for roughly an undergraduate college educated person with some knowledge of physics and math. His other course is "The Science of Information" and again, black holes are an add-on mainly because physicists have struggled to understand what happens to entropy and information when something crosses the boundary zone around a black hole: the region from which it cannot escape. This course is really a course on information theory. That leaves only Dr. Fillipenko's course on Black Holes. OK--it's fairly short at 12 lectures. Sure it could be a lot longer--in which case it would explain a lot more about some of the background sciences (gravity, entropy, information theory, stellar mechanics etc.) but it probably wouldn't give much more directly about black holes--since there's only so much astrophysicists feel pretty certain about anyhow. The course at least briefly covers pretty much every idea a non-physicist would want to know about black holes. Although it's about 9 years old now, there was only one area in which I, a non physicist, knew it was not quite up to date: he discusses gravity waves as a theory physicists felt pretty sure about, and potentially a great new way of gaining information about the universe, but as of his lectures they had not yet truly been detected, and now they have been. This is a pretty minor issue for me. Reading some of the more critical comments: Yes, Dr. Fillipenko tries harder than any other lecturers I've watched on Great Courses, to be entertaining. He himself loves to laugh, and he's done an awful lot of education of college level students (whose attention can be especially hard to keep early in the AM or late in the afternoon) so he adds quite a variety of quick jokes, references to black holes in popular culture and the like, to hold an audience's interest. Some, who apparently like their lecturers thoroughly serious (like Dr. Shumacher) find this annoying. I do not. The information can be conveyed with or without any humor at all and people vary on their preference. He's been highly popular with university students, who appreciate it. The second issue was whether or not he took enough time to explain some complicated topics. It's true, there are certain areas that he covered pretty briefly. Generally, those are the areas it takes a really strong background in the mathematics involved and/or other whole topics in physics to properly appreciate. Sometimes a question may occur to you as he's talking. Just keep watching: you might find he comes back to your question in a later lecture, or you may find the course guide and transcript handy there. Black holes still remain mysterious objects with many questions not yet answered about them. I think this course was quite adequate to convey what astrophysicists feel confident about, as well as some of the areas where they are still uncertain, and you should not really need any knowledge of mathematics beyond some algebra to understand the information he's conveying. This course as I recall used to be over-priced (in my opinion) for only 2 discs. I got it on a sale price and felt it was well worth my money then. One last point: some of these 12 lectures are pretty much repeated in his far longer (and also excellent) course "Introduction to Astronomy" second version with a total of 96 lectures. Six to maybe 8 of those lectures relate to black holes (you'd find what's covered in 6 of those lectures much like what is covered in this course, and the other two cover related material which was just quickly mentioned here). I was happy with this course on black holes, and very happy with his comprehensive survey of topics in Astronomy on 16 discs).
Date published: 2018-02-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Pretty much tells the whole story Well presented; perhaps a bit long, but maybe it takes all of it to cover this interesting subject. Professor Filippenko is entertaining and has loosened up from his earlier lecture(s). Particularly his explanation of some of the new words that have come from recent discoveries in physics and cosmology.
Date published: 2017-08-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Needs Updating Course is circa ~2009. Does not include LIGO success in discovering gravitational waves. Does not include latest LISA progress. Course is lively and informative. The professor clearly presents the material.
Date published: 2017-06-11
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