Particle Physics for Non-Physicists: A Tour of the Microcosmos

Course No. 1247
Professor Steven Pollock, Ph.D.
University of Colorado, Boulder
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Course No. 1247
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Course Overview

This two-part series explains, in easily accessible terms, the discovery of the infinitely small particles-the quarks and neutrinos, muons and bosons-that make up everything in nature, from microbes to stars.

It covers the nature and functions of the individual particles, and their roles in the Standard Model of particle physics (a theory that is as much a masterpiece in science as Shakespeare's works are in literature). The lectures also trace the history of particle physics as a science, and the dedicated scientists and complex technology that have made this branch of physics so profoundly productive and important.

This course provides a framework to understand such cutting-edge physics research as gravity waves, dark matter, and string theory.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Nature of Physics
    What is the world made of, how do the constituents fit, and what are the fundamental rules they obey? We discuss the history of human understanding of atoms and subatoms, and articulate some primary ideas in particle physics, focusing on what we know well. x
  • 2
    Standard Model of Particle Physics
    Where do we stand in our understanding of the smallest building blocks of the world? The Standard Model of particle physics is one of the greatest quantitative success stories in science. What are the players, what are the forces, and what are some of the concepts and buzzwords? x
  • 3
    Pre-History of Particle Physics
    We summarize the scientific evolution of atomism: prescientific ideas, the classical worldview of Isaac Newton, and finally the modern ideas of fundamental constituents. How could a famous physicist say physics was "done" in 1899? x
  • 4
    Birth of Modern Physics
    We explore the transition from 19th-century classical physics to 20th-century modern physics. This is the story of Planck, Rutherford, Einstein, and the early quantum physicists. We gain our primitive first understandings of the realistic structure of atoms. x
  • 5
    Quantum Mechanics Gets Serious
    A qualitative introduction to the work of Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and Dirac in describing electrons, this lecture looks at how the first fundamental particle was discovered. We introduce such concepts as spin and quantum electrodynamics (QED), and conclude with the experimental discovery of antimatter and the neutron. x
  • 6
    New Particles & New Technologies
    This lecture conducts a survey of particle physics in the first half of the 20th century: cosmic rays, the discovery of the muon (Who ordered that?), Yukawa's theory of nuclear force, and the discovery of the pion. We conclude by discussing the electron volt (ev) as a tool to make sense of the particle discoveries to come. x
  • 7
    Weak Interactions & the Neutrino
    What is a weak interaction, and how is it connected to radioactivity? What is an interaction, anyway, and how does it differ from a force? We discuss the carriers of weak forces, W and Z particles, and introduce neutrinos—ghostlike particles with no mass. x
  • 8
    Accelerators & Particle Explosion
    Particle accelerators, born after World War II, were in some respects the origin of big science in the United States. We discuss how these machines worked and the steady stream of new particles discovered through their use. x
  • 9
    Particle "Zoo"
    Some new particles exhibited a curious mix of strong and weak properties. The proper description of these "strange particles" was crucial in understanding the particle "zoo." This lecture introduces lots of new lingo—mesons and baryons, hadrons and leptons, bosons and fermions. x
  • 10
    Fields & Forces
    This lecture covers the concept of a field and the early problems involved in constructing the modern theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED). We examine the 1947 Shelter Island conference, the problem of infinities, the concept of renormalization, and Feynman diagrams. x
  • 11
    "Three Quarks for Muster Mark"
    Hadrons (strongly interacting particles) are fundamental but not elementary. Could they be made of something else? This is the breakthrough idea of quarks. This lecture explores early quark conditions. x
  • 12
    From Quarks to QCD
    If quarks are the fundamental particles, how do they interact? The answer: They carry a new charge, a strong charge described by color. We introduce these concepts as part of the fledgling theory of quantum chromodynamics (QCD) from the 1970s. x
  • 13
    Symmetry & Conservation Laws
    What does symmetry mean to a physicist? Pretty much what it means to you: an aesthetic property of a system, a pattern that appears the same when viewed from different perspectives. x
  • 14
    Broken Symmetry, Shattered Mirrors
    Symmetry is sometimes slightly broken or badly broken. Either way, there is something useful to be learned about the world. This lecture explores (a seemingly obvious) mirror symmetry, also called parity, and the stunning surprise that it is not perfect (parity violation). x
  • 15
    November Revolution of 1974
    In November of 1974, two simultaneous experimental discoveries rocked the world of particle physics. A new particle, a new quark, had been found. The charmed quark changed the scientific paradigm for physicists overnight. x
  • 16
    A New Generation
    The last great surprises: a new generation of particles. The tau lepton is discovered, and symmetry arguments tell scientists that the tau neutrino, and bottom and top quarks, have to be there ... and they are! x
  • 17
    Weak Forces & the Standard Model
    Progress in the 1960s and '70s was not limited to strong forces and quarks. This is the story of the theory of Weinberg, Salam, and Glashow—the electroweak theory—that unified the fundamental weak, electric, and magnetic forces. We can now summarize the Standard Model. x
  • 18
    Greatest Success Story in Physics
    The Standard Model of particle physics is an impressive accomplishment. Its unparalleled success includes qualitative and quantitative measurements, with years of increasingly precise tests. x
  • 19
    The Higgs Particle
    The Higgs particle is the least understood piece of our story so far, and the one central part not yet directly verified. What is this particle, and what role does it play in the Standard Model? x
  • 20
    Solar Neutrino Puzzle
    We have always assumed that neutrinos are massless, but what if they did have mass? Why are there far fewer neutrinos coming from the sun than there should be? What does it mean to talk about neutrinos changing flavor? x
  • 21
    Back to the Future (1)—Experiments to Come
    The SSC may be dead, but experimental particle physics is alive and vibrant! What are some of the burning issues? Among those we will discuss are the search for violations of matter-antimatter symmetry, and neutrino beams that will travel through the Earth from source to target. x
  • 22
    Back to the Future (2)—Puzzles & Progress
    The Standard Model is a great success. So why are many physicists looking for a more fundamental theory of nature? We'll begin with the missing link of gravity; issues of simplicity, unification, and grand unification; then two developments that to many physicists seem to be the best candidates for new physics: supersymmetry and string theory. x
  • 23
    Really Big Stuff—The Origin of the Universe
    What does cosmology, the study of the universe as a whole, have to do with particle physics? Matter at the very largest scales requires understanding of matter at the very tiniest. We'll discuss how particle physics fits in with the Big Bang, the more recent theory of inflation, and the newly discovered dark matter and dark energy. x
  • 24
    Looking Back & Looking Forward
    What have we learned after more than 100 years of intense study of fundamental particles? What puzzles remain? What you might take out of this course is a sense of physical order and understanding of the constituents of the larger world. x

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  • 202-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

Steven Pollock

About Your Professor

Steven Pollock, Ph.D.
University of Colorado, Boulder
Dr. Steven Pollock is Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He earned his B.S. in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his master's degree and Ph.D. in Physics from Stanford University. Prior to taking his position at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Professor Pollock was a senior researcher at the National Institute for Nuclear and High Energy Physics. In 2013, Professor...
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Particle Physics for Non-Physicists: A Tour of the Microcosmos is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 137.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I like it. Gets a little technical at times for me (I know close to nothing of physics) and have to really try to remember past explanations. But a great into.
Date published: 2020-11-11
Rated 1 out of 5 by from particle physics for non-physicists I might not be a particle physicist but I have a three digit IQ. I think a 3rd grader would have been stultified by this lecture series
Date published: 2020-06-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent briefing needs update I am happy I bought this product. Excellent presentation. Well organized. Copyright is 2003 so it needs an update.
Date published: 2020-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyable narrative style How can a teacher present the concepts of physics without math? Two ways are an historical approach and analogies. Professor Pollock mostly follows an historical approach. Each lecture covers a decade or two of research and discoveries, telling us the subject as if it were a story. I enjoyed this course very much. The story the professor told was fascinating, as well as the big picture he assembled near the end of the course (the Standard Model). I bought the streaming audio version and the paper transcript book. I listened in bed with my eyes closed and could usually follow Professor Pollock. But because so much material was new to me, I started forgetting it soon after listening. So, I made some time during the day to read the guidebook (in annotated outline form) before moving on. This was usually sufficient for me to retain everything up to that point so that I could benefit from the next lecture. (Each lecture builds on the previous one.) I bought the transcript fearing that I wouldn't catch everything, but Professor Pollock speaks clearly and communicates well, so the guidebook alone was sufficient without the transcript. Before starting, I knew a little bit about the subject (from one year of high school chemistry, one semester of classical physics in college, and reading a little bit about quarks and forces on the internet and elsewhere), but I had big gaps in my knowledge and understanding. This, by the way, was the first course I completed from The Great Courses. I've completed a couple of courses since then, and now I'm starting a course on classical physics by the same professor. The strengths of the course include the narrative style of instruction, Professor Pollock's enthusiasm, and his excellent guidebook. The lectures were neither dry nor disorganized. Weaknesses include the necessity of reading the guidebook or listening to a lecture at least twice, without which it's very easy to feel lost. The professor says it's ok to feel lost while listening, but I think I would have enjoyed the course less if I did. Also, although I never got to watch these lectures because I had purchased the audio version, I bought another of his courses and noticed right away that he doesn't stand still (his body moving constantly upward and downward), which could be a distraction. This is a course best listened to rather than watched.
Date published: 2020-06-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Provides what you need to go in more depth We started our study of modern physics with Don Franklin's The Theory of Everything. We didn't understand much of the information he provided. Now, after watching Particle Physics for Non-Physicists, we are ready to return to Dr. Franklin's course and we are also able to understand the course on the Higgs Boson. We found Dr, Pollock's presentation to be easily understandable and fun. His analogies are helpful, and his enthusiasm for physics is contagious. He shows how the Standard Model evolved over time, often providing interesting tidbits about the physicists. My favorite lesson was the one in which he seemed to have forgotten to remove the clip around his lower leg which kept his pant leg from getting caught in his bicycle chain. I would enjoy a new edition of this course, which would include innovations which have taken place since 2003.
Date published: 2020-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Good Course for Novices Like Me After watching Sean Carrol's Higgs Boson course I felt a bit overwhelmed. Then one day after I had called Great Courses an ordered another course I got into a brief conversation with a Great Course rep who had taken my order. After taking the order she recommended another course for my purchase and after hearing which course she had recommended, I was hesitant because it was another physics course and I explained how Sean's course had been too technical for me. She then recommended Particle Physics for Non Physicists: A tour of the Microcosmos. So, I took a chance and i am glad that i did. This course taught by Professor Pollock was a pleasure to watch. He very carefully and expertly explained particle physics in a relatively less complicated way. He also introduced me to numerous physics Nobel prize winners who helped develop particle physics from Planck to Higgs. I enjoyed the journey and recommend this course to any novice who is interested in learning about particle physics.
Date published: 2020-05-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Non-science Majors Can Enjoy and Understand This! I am thoroughly enjoying this class. I would say it's one of my all-time favorites. This set of lectures handily accomplishes what Great Course lectures are designed to do. Pollock presents the material clearly and methodically. His enthusiasm and love for the topic are contagious. His lectures tease out significant concepts in a way that even a non-science major can follow. He illustrates these nano-size particles with analogies that draw on our everyday experience. He outlines developments in a historical timeline, so we can learn about these amazing ideas in roughly the same order they were discovered.
Date published: 2020-04-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I found this very interesting and helpful. I found this very helpful in enabling me to,understand a complex and puzzling topic. I liked the friendly attitude of the teacher. It made me less afraid of a truly intimidating topic.
Date published: 2020-04-12
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