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Impossible: Physics beyond the Edge

Impossible: Physics beyond the Edge

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Impossible: Physics beyond the Edge

Course No. 1299
Professor Benjamin Schumacher, Ph.D.
Kenyon College
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4.7 out of 5
61 Reviews
91% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 1299
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Course Overview

Physicists spend a lot of time thinking about impossible things, since probing the constantly shifting bounds between the possible and impossible is one of the best ways to discover unexpected phenomena and new laws of nature. And for nonscientists, exploring this extraordinary realm is one of the best introductions to the immensely rich subject of physics.

Consider these questions:

  • Can machines produce limitless energy?
  • Is time travel possible?
  • Can anything travel faster than light?
  • Is it possible to escape from a black hole?

Each is a puzzle that requires pieces from different parts of physics to solve. And after investigating these and other questions, you begin to see how all of physics is tied together in a system that is consistent, logical, beautiful, and often very surprising.

For example, the question about whether time travel is possible leads you to a study of the nature of time and space. The paradoxes you encounter there are directly related to Einstein's concepts of space-time and the constancy of the speed of light from his theory of relativity. This, in turn, takes you to exotic ideas such as black holes and wormholes, which some theorists believe may be potential shortcuts through space-time.

Before you know it, a staple subject of science fiction—time travel—has taken you through many layers of investigation to reveal profound truths about the universe.

Impossible: Physics beyond the Edge uses this ingenious approach in 24 delightful half-hour lectures that will entertain and nourish your mind, while teaching you more physics than you ever imagined. Your guide into the realms of the impossible is veteran Great Courses Professor Benjamin Schumacher of Kenyon College, a pioneering theorist in quantum information, which is a field dealing with things once deemed impossible.

Is It Possible?

Designed for those with no previous knowledge of physics, Impossible: Physics beyond the Edge will also appeal to the spirit of whimsy and adventure in those already well grounded in the subject. The course is illustrated with hundreds of diagrams, 3-D animations, and images to convey fundamental ideas at the core of physics—all in pursuit of the answer to the question, "Is it possible?"

Thanks to today's science-fiction-rich media, people are more inclined than ever to think that the fanciful is real, that imaginary creations such as perpetual motion machines and warp-drive space engines are feasible technologies. Impossible: Physics beyond the Edge serves as an enlightening corrective to this outlook.

On the other hand, modern physics is full of real phenomena that are so counterintuitive that they seem like science fiction. Here are a few that you encounter in this course:

  • Near-absolute zero: Reaching the coldest possible temperature—absolute zero at -273.15º C—is probably impossible. But as some substances approach this limit, electrical resistance and viscosity drop to zero, and a strange new form of matter emerges.
  • Time dilation: According to Einstein's special theory of relativity, a clock in motion keeps time more slowly than one at rest—from the point of view of an observer at rest. However, an observer accompanying the moving clock notices no time slowdown at all.
  • Quantum tunneling: In the quantum world, particles can do the equivalent of walking through walls—appearing on the other side of an apparently impassable energy barrier. The effect has many uses, including the scanning tunneling microscope, which can "see" atoms.
  • Entanglement: In the strangest of all quantum effects, a pair of particles acts together as a system; if something happens to one particle, the other responds instantly, even if it is millions of miles away. It seems like a violation of faster-than-light communication, but it isn't.

From Thermodynamics to Information Theory

Professor Schumacher begins the course by investigating three ways that scientists interpret the impossible and how these approaches inspired important breakthroughs by Euclid, Isaac Newton, and James Clerk Maxwell. Historically, some inventions and discoveries were called impossible shortly before they were actually achieved, and you learn how there is a danger of being like the eminent scientist Simon Newcomb, who in 1903 declared that humans would never fly, just a few weeks before the Wright brothers took off over Kitty Hawk.

The opposite risk is chasing a dream that the laws of physics won't allow. The most notorious example is a device that produces limitless energy—a perpetual motion machine. Professor Schumacher's discussion of this long and fruitless quest leads you to one of the most important sets of ideas in physics: the three laws of thermodynamics, which were developed in the 19th century in concert with the technological innovations of the industrial revolution.

From here, you survey the advancing frontier of physics, as startling new theories changed our perception of what's possible and what's not, including such revolutions as these:

  • Relativity and quantum theory: Starting in the early 20th century, these two groundbreaking theories have done more than anything else to remap the border between the possible and impossible.
  • Chaos theory: The discovery that the future is hostage to unpredictable, chaotic fluctuations in present conditions destroyed the dream that the future can ever be forecast with any certainty or precision.
  • Noether's theorem: In the early 20th century, mathematician Emmy Noether made the remarkable discovery that the great laws of physics, such as the conservation of energy, result from symmetrical features of space and time.
  • Information theory: Information is a powerful idea in physics and at the heart of many impossible phenomena, such as the impossibility of anything traveling faster than light—in which "anything" means "information."

You will also see how the square-cube law in mathematics was used as long ago as the 17th century to conclusively dismiss an idea that still won't die: that gigantic insects and other larger-than-life creatures are plausible life forms.

Impossibility as a Tool of Understanding

By the end of the course, you will have probed the nature of the impossible from many points of view and in many branches of physics—discovering that racing a light beam, hovering over a black hole, chasing quantum particles, trying to reverse the flow of time, and other astounding adventures make an excellent education in the fundamental laws of nature. These laws work together to create the sometimes perplexing, frequently surprising, and always wonderful world in which we live. As Professor Schumacher says, "If our goal is understanding, then there is nothing more practical than the impossible."

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    From Principles to Paradoxes and Back Again
    Prepare to explore the thrilling frontier that separates the possible from the impossible by first looking at what scientists mean by these two terms, and how the boundaries can shift. Professor Schumacher notes that by pondering the impossible, scientists gain amazing insights into the nature of physical laws. x
  • 2
    Almost Impossible
    Many technological and scientific breakthroughs were thought to be impossible before they were achieved. Examine several famous cases in which foremost experts were proved wrong—about heavier-than-air flight, space travel, the chemical composition of stars, and the existence of life forms at ultrahigh temperatures. x
  • 3
    Perpetual Motion
    Probe one of the most enduring of all impossible quests: the search for a perpetual motion machine. Learn how the futility of such a pursuit was explained four centuries ago by the Flemish mathematician Simon Stevin, whose work eventually led to the law of conservation of energy. x
  • 4
    On Sunshine and Invisible Particles
    Investigate two challenges to the law of conservation of energy, also known as the first law of thermodynamics. In the 19th century, the source of the sun's energy seemed inexplicable, until the discovery of radioactivity. Then, in the 20th century, a type of radioactive decay appeared to violate energy conservation, until the discovery of an invisible elementary particle. x
  • 5
    Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire
    Learn how the 19th-century French engineer Nicolas Carnot showed that only a temperature difference can be used to generate work, and that some waste heat must always be lost—ideas that led to the second law of thermodynamics and the important concept of entropy. x
  • 6
    Maxwell's Demon
    Entropy always increases in a system in which work is being done. Investigate James Clerk Maxwell's famous "demon"—an imaginary being that, in principle, appears to violate the entropy law. See how the demon paradox was resolved by interpreting entropy as information. x
  • 7
    Absolute Zero
    Learn how absolute zero (0 K or -273.15 degrees Celsius) is unattainable due to the third law of thermodynamics. Nonetheless, remarkable things happen on the way toward this impossible goal. For example, electrical resistance and viscosity drop to zero in certain substances, and weird quantum mechanical effects occur. x
  • 8
    Predicting the Future
    Consider a new kind of impossible thing: predicting the future in the presence of chaos. Even the slightest imprecision in present knowledge makes the long-term future unknowable. This is the phenomenon of dynamical chaos, also known as the "butterfly effect"—from the ability of a single flapping butterfly to radically affect future weather. x
  • 9
    Visiting the Past
    Explore the paradoxes of time travel. These are so fundamental that most physicists regard time travel as a near-absolute impossibility, yet science-fiction writers—and a few imaginative physicists—have proposed ways to avoid these difficulties. Look into some of their intriguing ideas. x
  • 10
    Thinking in Space-Time
    Is the passage of time merely "a stubborn illusion," as Einstein believed? Investigate the revolutionary concept of space-time that emerges from his theory of relativity, which involved a major redrawing of the boundary between the possible and the impossible in physics. x
  • 11
    Faster than Light
    Nothing can travel faster than light. Is there a way around this prohibition? Learn that it all depends on what is meant by a "thing." By considering various thought experiments, discover that this ultimate speed limit applies fundamentally to information, which means it is impossible to send a message into the past. x
  • 12
    Black Holes and Curved Space-Time
    Einstein's general theory of relativity interprets gravity as a distortion of space-time near a massive object. Find out that for a very massive, dense object, this can result in a "black hole"—a region where the distortion is so strong that escape is impossible. x
  • 13
    A Spinning Universe, Wormholes, and Such
    Delve deeper into Einstein's theories to uncover some startling implications: The entire cosmos could be rotating on its axis, giving rise to several supposedly impossible phenomena, already dismissed. Weigh the evidence for and against "exotic" matter, wormholes, and other hypothetical features of space-time. x
  • 14
    What Is Symmetry?
    Something is symmetric if it is impossible to tell whether a particular transformation has been applied. Explore this fascinating boundary between the possible and impossible, which includes some of the deepest principles of physics—among them, the surprising connection between symmetry and conservation laws discovered by mathematician Emmy Noether. x
  • 15
    Mirror Worlds
    Inspect the universe through three special mirrors. One is an ordinary mirror that reflects left and right. Another mirror exchanges matter and antimatter. The third switches the future and the past. Is it possible to tell these mirror-worlds from our own? What does that imply about the laws of nature? x
  • 16
    Invasion of the Giant Insects
    Test a favorite plot device of science-fiction movies by examining whether supersize gorillas, insects as big as trucks, and other ordinary creatures enlarged to gigantic size can really exist. Is there a physical reason such monsters are in fact impossible? x
  • 17
    The Curious Quantum World
    With the discovery of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century, the accepted boundary between the possible and the impossible was changed in radical ways. Begin a series of lectures on the quantum realm with a look at three of its key features. x
  • 18
    Impossible Exactness
    In Newtonian physics, the position and velocity of a particle can both be specified to any level of precision. Not so in quantum mechanics, where these are limited by Heisenberg's famous uncertainty principle. Investigate the consequences of this fundamental restriction on what it's possible to know. x
  • 19
    Quantum Tunneling
    Discover how phenomena deemed impossible in classical physics are a regular feature of the quantum world—notably quantum tunneling, which is the ability of a subatomic particle to surmount a seemingly impassable energy barrier. One result of this effect: Black holes emit a slow trickle of energy known as Hawking radiation. x
  • 20
    Whatever Is Not Forbidden Is Compulsory
    Explore a startling rule in quantum mechanics: Anything that can possibly happen, will happen. This means that whatever does not happen, whatever is truly impossible among the elementary particles, provides a clue to the fundamental laws of nature. x
  • 21
    Entanglement and Quantum Cloning
    Delve into the weirdest of all quantum phenomena: entanglement, which causes a pair of quantum particles to behave as if they are telepathically connected. By cloning quantum particles, this effect could, in theory, allow faster-than-light signals, but there are fundamental reasons this is impossible. x
  • 22
    Geometry and Conservation
    Where do conservation laws come from? How does nature "enforce" them? Investigate these questions by performing a remarkable thought experiment: See how Maxwell's laws of electromagnetism and the geometry of space together imply the conservation of electric charge, even in a theoretical "electromagnetic-free" zone. x
  • 23
    Symmetry, Information, and Probability
    Survey the landscape of the impossible by focusing on three recurring themes in the course: One, symmetries are among the deepest principles in physics; two, the idea of information is pervasive; three, many phenomena that appear to be impossible are only statistical impossibilities. x
  • 24
    The Future of the Impossible
    Professor Schumacher concludes the course with his million-dollar list—those things he would be willing to bet a million dollars will remain impossible even in the face of future discoveries. But first he challenges you to draw on your newly acquired knowledge of physics to propose your own list. x

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Your professor

Benjamin Schumacher

About Your Professor

Benjamin Schumacher, Ph.D.
Kenyon College
Dr. Benjamin Schumacher is Professor of Physics at Kenyon College, where he has taught for 20 years. He received his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from The University of Texas at Austin in 1990. Professor Schumacher is the author of numerous scientific papers and two books, including Physics in Spacetime: An Introduction to Special Relativity. As one of the founders of quantum information theory, he introduced the term qubit,...
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Impossible: Physics beyond the Edge is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 61.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from An original approach explaining fundamental laws Prof Schumacher systematically examines and uses the impossible as a tool for examining the fundamental ideas in physics. This is a very original approach and is a welcome addition to the standard exposition of the laws of physics themselves as it provides an overall context around these laws, how they fit together in the whole picture. In short, making sense of overall picture of physics ruling the universe. No college-level calculus is used in this course. So, this is no entry barrier for people not familiar with calculus. And you will not find equations in this course either (except in extremely simplified form in Lecture 22 using common geometry). The course’s chief requirement: dedication – a must to obtain the full benefits of this course as it is far more substantial than the standard National Geographic science channel productions. Prof. Schumacher clearly explains fundamental concepts ruling the physical world, what truly is fundamentally impossible, as opposed to what was considered impossible because of technical limitations but turned out to be possible when technological advances removed the barrier. Staring from lecture 5, I needed more than the 30-minute runtime of the lectures as I paused to take my own notes. Right off the bat, I still must rate this course in comparison with the monumental works of Prof. Wolfson’s Physics in our Universe, Prof. Grossman’s Thermodynamics and Prof. Devaney’s Mastering Differential Equations. These three alone has set the bar as the golden standard against which all other science and math courses must be compared. Tough to be an ace in a roomful of stars. Hence my 4-star rating, for no specific faults with this course. Lectures 1 and 2 are of casual/easy viewing grade. At most, take a few lines of notes regarding the various types of impossibility (absolute, derived and statistical) because you will see this material again and again. Lecture 3 brings forth kinetic, potential and heat energy forms, along with the concept of total mechanical energy and work, outlining the impossibility of perpetual motion machines producing useful work without requiring energy. A good primer for an audience having a very low understanding of these concepts. Lecture 4 explains beta-decay. I found it interesting because it went beyond mere electron emission and it is completed with the historical background, key contributors and began over an absolute faith in the energy conservation principle. Lecture 5 shines by providing a clear explanation of the elusive concept of entropy. And its implication on time flow. Lecture 6 brings up the role of information in basic laws of physics. The laws governing information in the universe are part of the most fundamental laws of physics. Prof Schumacher explains that entropy is tied to lack of exact information about a system. Lecture 8 introduces the concept of chaos. No, weather forecasts beyond two weeks are not possible. Lecture 10 explores the basic concepts of Einstein relativity. I took more notes in this lecture. Note taking become more substantial in Lectures 11 and 12 dealing with space-time and black holes. Here the language seems strange, unfamiliar. This is where a new language has to be learned, replaying short sections to absorb the language. Completing these lectures will take more time than their 30-minute runtime. Lecture 13 dealing with time travel is more abstract and at time seems more speculative, sometimes even philosophical. At times taxing my dedication – I was glad to reach the end of it. The next lectures do not build upon this one so you could skip it without finding yourself at a loss in the following lectures. Lecture 14 introduces symmetry and discusses Emmy Noether’s spectacular theorem linking symmetries and conservation laws. I was impressed with the enthusiasm of the lecturer who makes it a point to convey this theorem as a fundamental insight. I was eagerly working my way up to this lecture and I was not disappointed. Except I would have liked more, sort of finding extra time by taking it away from lecture 16, which is essentially of casual viewing grade. Lecture 19 gets more serious again and provides a good explanation of the scanning tunneling microscope and a short exposition of the edge of current knowledge on black holes. In Lecture 22, at long last the concept of “field” used often times before is finally explained. The simplified description of Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism is noteworthy and a welcomed part of the course. They are interesting in and of themselves, even though it takes the entire lecture to get to the main point of how electromagnetism laws are enforced by nature as the author examines the theoretical case of a special region in space where the laws would be suspended for a limited period of time. The main point is how these laws are enforced in the universe. That lecture is well worth using the pause and rewind buttons. On the slightly negative side, Lecture 9 deals with the impossibility of time travel. It waxes into philosophy at times, with notions of irresistible fate. This lecture could benefit from a more substantial rewrite. Similarly, a large part of Lecture 16 could have been used to extend coverage of more interesting material. Owing to the quality of all of the other lectures, I’ll let it slide. Lecture 22 in particular more than makes up to these two.
Date published: 2017-07-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very interesting The passion the lecturer has for this topic definitely comes through right from the start. As I right this review I have only listened to the lectures and I found some of the material beyond me, however with visual cues it may be more clear. Having said that, I did enjoy the course and gained, what I would consider, relevant information.
Date published: 2017-07-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Diffecult concepts made easy I bought this course almost a month ago. I leapfrogged through the items of the course. On one hand, the lecturer is not only very passionate in his drive to make plain the difficult concepts of the course, but he indeed succeeded to do so more than any lecturer I have listened to thus far. On the other hand, I regret to say that his subjects, or the chosen angles he treated his subject from, were not of much interest to me. Thus I stopped half way.
Date published: 2017-05-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dis-ceivingly simple I have been slowly listening to this coarse while exercising. The title gives you the impression it is about impossible things in physics, but it is really a very good basic coarse in the laws of physics, especially thermodynamics. It is one of the best understandable explanations I've seen.
Date published: 2017-04-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Can a physics course make you laugh? Can a man who brought the term “qubit” and “Shumacher quantum data compression” into scientific parlance come across as personable and even fun? This Great Courses professor does it by being perfectly at ease with advanced Physics students (“My students certainly think the math is difficult”) as well as physics “newbies”. I laughed frequently during this course because the clarity of explanations provided many “Aha” moments. The most important topics include perpetual motion machines, what absolute zero entails, symmetry, quantum cloning & tunneling, conservation of energy and charge, time travel, FTL, the uncertainty principle, and most importantly whether one can predict the future of a chaotic system. Additionally, Shumaker seamlessly brings the accomplishments of the giants of physics into play at just the right moment within his 12 hours of lectures. He covers enough of them to require a 20-page addendum of Biographical Notes. What you should know about this course: 1. You don’t have to prior physics training though a decent high school course will help you get more out of your first run through, 2. Basic algebra (vectors, some math notation) is helpful, 3. Buying the course book might be to your advantage for this particular course, and 4.) This course has immediate value, replay value and academic referral value. The principles taught here are vital to conversation about modern topics ranging from climate change to Common Core. We need more people who “know the limitations” in charge of our media and education systems. Shumacher could teach anyone.
Date published: 2016-12-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Plausible, Possible, Probable given Laws of Nature This course taught me to see symmetry in new ways based on the fundemantal laws of nature; what it takes to develop problem solving value; and inclusion of abstraction into the scope of our testing. I enjoyed Dr. Shumacher's description of the three approaches of think in lecture 1....that there is a need to include three abstract "personified" perspectives....absolute (Euclid), theory (Newton), and statistics (Maxwell) that require use of the impossible, implausible, and improbable approaches to solve paradoxical observations or mathematical breakthroughs...aka theoretical physics and proof. Also, it was great to see the square cubed law used - post humously, as an intermediate step before taking on the challenges of moving from thermodynamics to quantum mechanics, etc. Personally, I am greatful that many great physicists were able to use the Impossible / improbable to break through institutional barriers to discover new deminsions of reality that do not violate Natural Laws but are very difficult to understand without visualization tools... Just try to do this to explain the Higgs Boson / Higgs Field to move from partical physics to explaining gravity which moves gravity from the weakest of the 4 known forces to the most powerful. That is, it explains dark matter / energy - 75% of of our universe and why its expansion is approximately the speed of light. Those interested should venture to view the course on Dark Matter / Engergy and then the Higgs Boson course. A triumph over what was impossible....
Date published: 2016-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent!!! Prof. Schumacher delivers an superb presentation that is both nuanced for the avid learner & simple for the casual observer. He is one of the Top 5 favorite Great Course instructors in my house. Can't recommend this course (& his other courses) enough!
Date published: 2016-07-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from To Infinity and Beyond Impossible or Possible? Discussing scientific principles from this vantage point is extremely entertaining. The professor's clear presentation style and obvious enthusiasm for the material kept my attention throughout. Some of the ideas once thought to be impossible only to be proven possible give me hope that warp drives really will be invented someday. One can only dream. After all, science is an adventure in understanding and the course demonstrates that there are still a lot of puzzles to be solved and knowledge to be gained "where no has gone before."
Date published: 2016-01-21
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