Physics of History

Course No. 1252
Professor David J. Helfand, Ph.D.
Columbia University
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Course No. 1252
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Course Overview

In April 1991, two Alpine hikers stumbled across the well-preserved body of a Copper Age hunter half-buried in a glacier on the border between Italy and Austria. This accidental discovery, nicknamed Ötzi the Iceman, possessed a trove of invaluable information about the origins of prehistoric people. Yet while standard archaeological techniques revealed many interesting aspects of Ötzi's life—including his diet and his dress—it was only through the use of physics that more microscopic clues were uncovered; clues that, decades earlier, might have remained hidden. The strontium-to-lead ratios in Ötzi's teeth matched the ratios found in the Eisack Valley, northeast of present-day Bolzano, Italy, suggesting that was where he spent his childhood. Varying ratios of oxygen 18 to oxygen 16 in Ötzi's bones indicated that he spent much of his later life at higher altitudes. And the presence of excess copper and arsenic in Ötzi's hair suggested that he played an active role in copper smelting.

This is but one of the many examples of how the laws of physics can give us intimate details about history—details that are impossible to find through mere observation. In fact, the history of the entire universe and all it contains is written in the particular arrangements of the fundamental particles that constitute all matter. With recent developments in technology, scientists can now use everything they know about atoms—their origins, structure, and behavior—to uncover the truth about historical mysteries in archaeology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and even art.

With this unprecedented access to times far earlier than those recorded by historians, scientists can now explore the rise and fall of preliterate societies, the history of the Earth's changing climate, and even the origins of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. Using this knowledge, they can finally develop a comprehensive, stable timeline that encompasses all of history, from the beginning of time to today—all by "reading" the history of a bone, a piece of wood, the mortar in a building, a neutrino from the sun, and more.

The Physics of History, taught by award-winning Professor David J. Helfand of Columbia University, gives you the background to understand how scientists know what they do about the past. These 24 richly illustrated lectures cover an astonishing range of cases in which physics has helped to redefine history—in astronomy, archaeology, geology, climatology, art history, and other fields.

An Amazing Voyage

Your amazing voyage begins with five lectures on elementary atomic and nuclear physics. Professor Helfand then builds on this background with a series of lectures dealing with mysteries on Earth. He rounds out the course with a group of lectures that take on the problems of the cosmos, including the radical adjustment in our view of time and space required by Einstein's theory of relativity.

Immensely rewarding and enlightening, The Physics of History enhances your appreciation of both science and history by addressing questions such as these:

  • How did corn spread across the New World? Knowing the photosynthetic pathway used by corn, scientists can analyze Native American bones and chart the spread of corn cultivation, from its origin in the highlands of Mexico to New England over the course of 7,000 years.
  • When did the extinction of the dinosaurs occur? Scientists have been able to narrow down June as the month when, 64.5 million years ago, an asteroid slammed into the Yucatan peninsula and wiped out at least 50% of all living species on Earth—all from a frozen water lily leaf preserved at a particular point in its life cycle.
  • Which is older, Stonehenge or the pyramids? Archaeologists long considered Stonehenge to be much younger than the Egyptian pyramids. But in the 1960s, carbon-14 dating showed Stonehenge to be much older, predating the pyramids by hundreds of years.
  • How old is the Earth? Analysis of a pair of rare atoms in meteorites shows that the Earth and the rest of the solar system formed 4.56 billion years ago. Clues in atoms also tell scientists about the early history of the Earth, where the moon came from, and that the explosion of a nearby star may have triggered the formation of the sun and planets.

Tools of the Trade

In The Physics of History, you explore the resources that scientists use to investigate the past, the most important of which is radioactivity. Radioactive isotopes decay at predictable rates, from fractions of a second to billions of years, making them very precise clocks. Isotopes also serve as tracers for the circumstances that produced them, such as the explosion of a star.

One of the best-known radioactive isotopes is carbon-14. With a half-life of 5,730 years (the time required for half of the atoms to decay), it is ideal for dating carbon-containing material relating to human history. For example, the carbonate mortar in an unusual tower in Rhode Island turned out to be only 300 years old, showing that it was not built by the Vikings before Columbus, as some people believed.

You also examine other tools, many of which are used in combination:

  • Tree rings: These annual growth layers have been compiled into a continuous record extending back 12,000 years, allowing wood to be dated from distinctive patterns of ring widths, which also contain information on the weather conditions for any given year.
  • Ice cores: With ice sheets more than two miles thick, Greenland and Antarctica preserve the successive snowfalls of 750,000 years. Trapped in these layers are atmospheric gases, sea salt, and dust, which serve as time capsules of long-ago events.
  • Ocean sediments: Extending even further back than tree rings or ice cores, ocean sediments represent a continuous 5-million-year record, shedding light on climate change and continental drift.

Drama, Mystery, and Delight

One of the pleasures of The Physics of History is watching Professor Helfand tackle each of his case histories like a detective at a crime scene, using an arsenal of techniques to tease vivid stories from the slimmest of evidence. The drama and delight of his teaching style have made him a popular lecturer at Columbia University, where he was honored with a Presidential Teaching Award and a Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates.

Among the many mysteries you solve with him are these:

  • How to use atoms in a work of art to show whether it is a fake
  • Why a simple ratio of isotopes can signal if orange juice has been adulterated with corn syrup
  • What created the left-handed asymmetry in amino acids found in all forms of life on Earth, as well as in meteorites

The Physics of History is an insightful feast that will undoubtedly satisfy your curiosity about some of the most profound discoveries in the history of humanity—and the universe. With the wealth of information contained in this course, the next time you hear about a breakthrough scientific finding in the news, you'll be better equipped to answer the question: How did they do that?

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Vast Reaches of Time and Space
    Atoms tell the story of events that are inaccessible to the methods of traditional historians. Begin your study of this hidden history by investigating simple analogies that allow you to comprehend the vast realms of time and space that are covered in the course. x
  • 2
    Fundamentally, What's the World Made Of?
    Everything is made of atoms, but what are atoms made of? In this lecture, peel back their layers, discovering that the atomic nucleus can serve as an invaluable clock and that electrons behave in distinctive ways that identify atoms across millions of light-years of space. x
  • 3
    Energy in the Atomic World
    Investigate the forces through which atoms and their particles interact. These interactions are manifested as energy. As an example, you tally the human requirement for energy at the atomic level, coming up with an average of about 2,000 calories per person, per day. x
  • 4
    The Atomic Basis of the Senses
    Professor Helfand shows how your sensations are mediated by a cascade of atomic interactions, starting in the external world and ending in the brain. For all their power, the senses miss a great deal; for instance, there's a good evolutionary reason why your nose can't detect carbon monoxide. x
  • 5
    Radioactivity—Nature's Imperturbable Clock
    It is impossible to say when something happened without a clock to measure the passage of time. Learn that for a wide range of time scales, nature provides imperturbable clocks in the radioactive decay of different isotopes. x
  • 6
    From Detecting Forgeries to the First Art
    Discover that by bombarding a painting with neutrons, it's possible to determine the pigments employed. If you find modern pigments that were not in use when the work was supposedly created, then you know something is amiss. Carbon-14 dating is another technique for unmasking forgeries. x
  • 7
    Watching Plaster Dry—And Dating It
    Carbon-14 decay is ideal for dating material that was once alive, or indeed for any chemical process that involves carbon. In this lecture, learn how this technique helped debunk a story about the Vikings in Rhode Island. x
  • 8
    We Are What We Eat—The History of Diet
    Since every atom in your body comes from consuming and inhaling atoms, a detailed analysis of your atomic makeup says quite a lot about you. Investigate the ancient Iceman, whose probable birthplace and subsequent wanderings are revealed in the atoms of his bones and hair. x
  • 9
    A Plant Is What It Eats—Tracing Agriculture
    Investigate three separate biochemical pathways for photosynthesis. Thanks to the pathway that evolved for drought tolerance in plants such as corn, scientists are able to chart the ancient spread of corn cultivation from Mexico to New England over the course of 7,000 years. x
  • 10
    Tree Rings—Seasons of the Past 12,000 Years
    Leonardo da Vinci pioneered the idea of reading past seasons in tree rings. However, the field did not take off until the 20th century. This lecture shows how isotopic analysis of tree rings yields records of temperature and humidity, year by year, for a dozen millennia. x
  • 11
    Ice Cores—Climate Records for 800 Millennia
    Remarkably, an ice core provides all the records of a modern weather station, extending over a time interval five times longer than humans have inhabited the Earth. Study past periods of climate change and the lessons they hold for today's warming planet. x
  • 12
    Ocean Sediments Reveal 5 Million Years
    Explore another archive of information: ocean sediments. As sea plants and animals die and sink to the ocean floor, their remains preserve the isotopic ratios of oxygen and hydrogen present when they were alive, providing a continuous record of sea-surface temperatures over millions of years. x
  • 13
    A Bad Day in June—Death of the Dinosaurs
    One of the most celebrated incidents of prehistory is the asteroid impact that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Follow the trail of evidence that helped investigators deduce the time, place, and outcome of this Earth-shaking event, which paved the way for the rise of mammals. x
  • 14
    The Origin and Early History of Life
    Life emerged on Earth from commonplace interstellar chemicals. Look at the early history of life, including the peculiar fact that the amino acids on Earth and in meteorites are left-handed, a situation that may relate to the violent effects of a nearby neutron star. x
  • 15
    The History of Earth's Atmosphere
    Clues from other planets and from the geological record allow scientists to reconstruct the long-term history of Earth's atmosphere and the dramatic differences in climate over time. Learn why dragonflies with 30-inch wingspans were possible in the distant past but not today. x
  • 16
    The Age of the Solar System
    In this lecture, look at historical estimates for the age of Earth and the solar system. Thanks to a pair of rare atoms, we now know the answer: 4.56 billion years. Analysis of moon rocks adds further details about cataclysms that shaped the early Earth. x
  • 17
    What Happened before the Sun Was Born?
    Here, investigate how an isotope found in meteorites suggests that a massive star blew up in the region that later saw the formation of the solar system. This blast may have provided the push that a localized cloud of gas needed to collapse and form the sun. x
  • 18
    Atoms Are Star Stuff—Cooking Up Carbon
    What is a star? Professor Helfand makes sense of the astronomer's definition: "A star is a plasma, gravitationally bound, supported by thermal pressure in hydrostatic equilibrium (usually), emitting blackbody radiation, and powered by nuclear fusion." x
  • 19
    The Lives of Big Stars—Cooking Up Big Atoms
    All that you eat, except for hydrogen atoms, was cooked for you inside stars. Explore why this is so and investigate the life cycles of stars of different masses and how all the elements from carbon to uranium are forged inside them. x
  • 20
    Relativity—Space and Time Become Spacetime
    Moving beyond the Milky Way galaxy, examine the surprising relationship between space and time discovered by Einstein. An understanding of his theory of relativity is crucial for the course's final quest to explain the origin of matter at the beginning of time. x
  • 21
    (Almost) Everything Is Relative
    The finite speed of light and the constancy of this speed for all observers is the basis for Einstein's special theory of relativity. Explore some consequences of the theory, such as the time dilation effect, which makes two clocks run at different rates depending on their relative motion. x
  • 22
    Matter Vanishes; Light Speed Is Breached?
    Relativity does not forbid faster-than-light travel, however, the strange consequences of such a phenomenon have never been observed. Discover how, in a world with theoretical faster-than-light particles, an effect could precede its cause in time. Also, learn about the equivalence of mass and energy. x
  • 23
    The Limits of Vision—13.7 Billion Years Ago
    Continuing your journey to the beginning of time, look back to the origin of the cosmic microwave background, a universal glow that permeates all of space and that records the state of the universe just 380,000 years after the big bang. x
  • 24
    The First Few Minutes—Where It All Began
    Arrive at the events that gave rise to matter itself. Professor Helfand likens this early period to an extreme form of musical chairs, when fundamental particles "froze out" at different times. End the course by following the history of a single quark, from its birth to its surprising fate today. x

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What's Included

What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 152-page printed course guidebook

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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

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Your professor

David J. Helfand

About Your Professor

David J. Helfand, Ph.D.
Columbia University
Dr. David J. Helfand is Professor of Astronomy at Columbia University, where he has taught for over 30 years. He was an undergraduate at Amherst College and earned his Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he worked under Professor Joseph Taylor, the 1993 Nobel Laureate in Physics. Professor Helfand's research has covered many areas of modern astrophysics, including radio, optical, and...
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Reviews

Physics of History is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 69.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beyond awesome! The story of Everything This course should be a core requirement to graduate college. And this should definitely be the course to take before taking any of the other science course, especially before taking chemistry! A+
Date published: 2017-12-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Intriguing I am only on the third lecture, but I am really enjoying them. Prof Helfand does a wonderful job of explaining the components of atoms. I am looking forward to learning how the study of atoms will open the history of our physical world.
Date published: 2017-09-28
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Mixed feelings I found the topic of Cosmos History thru atoms a very interesting one. At Lecture 6, I am finding the organization of subtopics logical. I like the clear tactile examples. However, I find the verbal presentation very difficult. The professor "makes eye contact" w/ us about 20% of the time, at most. He is reading and has eye focus elsewhere most of the time. I also find the speech much more rapid than in the other 4 DVD's, probably due to the verbatim reading, therefore difficult to follow. I am disappointed. I would only recommend if I knew this would not bother the person.
Date published: 2017-09-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Novel Approach I commend Dr. Helfand for drawing together and explaining such a variety of tools and techniques of Physics for dating past events and materials. I was already somewhat familiar with most of these (carbon-14 dating, tree-ring analysis, etc.), though I learned a lot more about their details from his lectures. His explanations were generally thorough and precise, and his varied topics were interesting. I also consider this course to be a good 'companion' to help me get more out of these other Great Courses in my collection: Experiencing Hubble, New Frontiers—Modern Perspectives on Our Solar System, The Inexplicable Universe, How the Earth Works, Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution, and Archaeology. Unlike at least one other purchaser/reviewers, I would definitely not describe the science presented in the course as being at a very basic, rudimentary level. I think that a student without at least an understanding of first-year university math and science might find the course bewildering. There were a few aspects, in my opinion, that could or should have been better about the course. One is that it lacked closed captioning, which I suppose may not have been featured by The Teaching Company back in 2009 when this course was released, but which would have been extremely helpful for viewers, whether or not they experience hearing difficulties. I myself am fairly good at lip-reading, but I found Professor Helfand to be an especially difficult speaker to lip-read, and I suspect that he sometimes mispronounced words, in any case. Also, while he did a pretty good good job attempting to use hand motions to illustrate points about atomic processes and celestial motions, I think additional diagrams and even animated visuals would have improved the course. Also, though they didn't seem to totally undermine the themes he developed, the Professor occasionally made uncharacteristically imprecise statements. For example, he said several times that the Noble Gas Elements are chemically inert, though counterexamples of that claim have been synthesized in laboratories since 1962. The father of a friend of mine was actually part of the team that produced xenon tetrafluoride, back in the 1960s while I was in high school. Very recently, admittedly too recently for Dr. Helfend to have known about it for his 2009 course, argon hydride was reported to have been detected in outer space. All in all, I do value and recommend this course.
Date published: 2017-09-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Nice presentation Interesting perspective and approach. I especially appreciate the manner of reviewing earlier concepts pertinent to the new lecturer. Too often, the instructor takes the "assumed knowledge" approach - not here as he does it right.
Date published: 2017-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best treatment of relativity The lectures on relativity are the best presentation on that subject I have ever seen for the lay viewer. The mathematics is clear yet on point. The professor has a clear style, and the lectures are well-organized. This is one of my favorite courses.
Date published: 2017-03-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Physics of history is awesome! I have a pretty good background in physics and chemistry, and I already understood carbon dating and potassium-argon dating, but this course was awesome! I'm sure there are many, many people who have no concept of how scientists know the age of fossils or rocks or what happened in a particular place millions or hundreds of millions of years ago, or even with the birth of our solar system. Professor Helfand has the answers, and explains things well whether or not someone has a science background. His analysis of Ötzi the Iceman was fascinating. Great job!
Date published: 2017-03-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my favorite courses. Up to this review I have viewed and listened to over 40 courses, and this is one of my favorites. It shares a lot of information with many courses related to physics, but what I like about it is that it covers and relates so many various topics, and does it neatly, elegantly, and understandably. The course exposes time and history in a format that we ordinarily do not consider, and does it all through an typically complex looking glass of physics. But the professor organizes and dispenses the information in such a way that it is easily understandable, and enjoyable to consider. He does this through a clever use of analogies and examples that the average layperson can relate to. He is never dull and injects just the right amount of humor at the appropriate moments. But this is not just a physics lite course for dummies. He goes into elaborate detail that may require several viewings to absorb and understand. The course is neatly organized to expose our accounting of time and history in ever increasing time-spans, and explores the breadth of the universe from the subatomic to the vast reaches of the universe, and from the Big Bang to the heat death. We not only learn about physics, but many other disciplines, such as meteorology and art restoration. Each lecture reveals a surprising new way to view the world. The value of this course is that all ages and levels of understanding can get something from these lectures and always come back for more when their level of comprehension has increased.
Date published: 2017-02-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from SURVEY of history would be better I played the whole course and will probably replay in several monthe. Too much to follow in one time.
Date published: 2017-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb! Now THIS is teaching! 24-lecture course recorded in 2009, with fine use of illustrations and pictures. This lecturer has the FACE of a professor, DRESSES like a professor, SOUNDS like a professor, and TEACHES like the IDEAL professor! What a gift to his students! He even has a small ponytail and a neat sense of humour which peeps through now and then ~ far out! The title of the course is somewhat troublesome, open to (mis)interpretation, but the VALUE of the course is SUPREME. I make no apology for the use of caps, for I must give fulsome praise to "The Physics of History" and the wonderfully engaging Dr. David J. Helfand. Protons, neutrons, atoms, molecules, electrons, nuclei, photons, leptons, positrons, quarks, muons, neutrinos et al... very confusing and complex to those of us without a solid science background, but two or three runs of lectures 2 through 5 will clarify, thank goodness. Alert! Don't daydream during these lectures! And I consider the handbook to be an essential reference aid. The lecture covering carbon dating is brilliant, with beautiful (even exquisite), clear explanations; I found it fascinating and highly informative, especially as I have been following the story of the Turin Shroud for decades. Similarly the section on tree rings is a joy to listen to, with solid reasoning and backup facts. In fact, every lecture contains gems! Many familiar topics are brought into focus by Professor Helfand, as he calls into play his cast of characters with the skill and aplomb of a seasoned producer and director on Broadway. He demonstrates so powerfully how physics and chemistry explain the activities and relationships of all living things, and serve to provide the way to make accurate determinations and predictions including historical fixes. This is a truly fascinating, absorbing and information-packed series. HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
Date published: 2016-10-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fills in a niche in the GC curriculum Overall compared to all the Great Courses I have purchased I rate this a 4.5. As other reviewers have noted there is overlap in the second half of the course with several other GC such as Professor Whittle's "Cosmology". The first half of the course demonstrates and instructs us on how physics, particularly atomic and nuclear physics, allows scientists and historians to determine so much about the world we live in. That fills in a niche in the great variety of GC history courses. The first part of the course is a 5.0 in my opinion; but, the second part is a 4.0 when compared to other GC on cosmology. The guide book contains several time lines, a glossary , and bibliographic sketches which I consider a big plus.
Date published: 2016-08-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Physics of History, no longer a mystery. The Physics of History is a really good course. I’m not going to re-hash what has already been written. I will add that I own many science based Great Courses and this title added another layer to most of them. I was really surprised at the level of depth Dr. Helfand provides to so many branches of physics. I’m happy I decided to take this course and I highly recommend it. Be warned that there is a lot of physics in this course. So, go slow and make multiple passes if necessary. Your efforts will be rewarded.
Date published: 2016-08-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful combination of history and science I've just finished this course and would like to say how wonderful I thought it was. I have a background of science to degree level (but not physics and maths) and an interest in history. The course is exactly as described. It will gives you the science behind history , not only how isotopic carbon dating and tree ring dating work, but more incredibly the history of where all the matter (and antimatter) in the universe came from. If you have never done any science and don't know what an atom is, then this course is not for you, however if you know what an atom is, and wondered what it's constituent parts are and how on earth did it get here, then this is the one for you. In his final 10 minutes of the final lecture Prof Helfand tells you the amazing story of the journey made by one of the first quarks that appeared within milliseconds of the big bang. He tells of its evolution into a neutron and then a proton then back again, how it became an atom of deuterium and eventually after the passage through dying stars ended up as a carbon atom being exhaled in front of you. This is a wonderful course, given by an excellent story teller. Many thanks. Charlie Berrisford . Bath England.
Date published: 2016-02-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic presentation! David Helfand gives a brilliant, entertaining and far-ranging presentation about physics & astronomy and gives us insight into the mind of a true scientist -- someone who takes a careful, skeptical and analytic view of the world, and seeks truth by ruling out false beliefs. This course will give you the solid grounding in physics that you might have received in High School if you'd been taught by someone who understood the material.... Dr. Helfand strides easily beyond the misinformation displayed in textbooks and clarifies "how things really work." The course is tantalizing in its coverage of "what we know as of today" (in 2008) and left me wishing that Dr. Helfand would do more courses. Good News! His latest book A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind has just been released. How i wish the guidance counselor I was saddled with in High School hadn't thought I was too dim to understand physics; thank God Dr. Helfand definitively proved him to be insufferably arrogant, and wrong.
Date published: 2016-02-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Two courses--second half is physics of universe I enjoyed this a lot. I was hesitant to purchase it with the significant number of low ratings, but decided I would like it based on what they didn't like about it. Most of the complaints are due to expectations. Those expecting it to be about (human) history and how physics is used in that fields--such as radiocarbon dating--will be disappointed with the last third. This really is a physics course with applications to the field of history. It covers a lot of radioactive isotopes and how those can be used to date things (or detect art forgeries). It also discusses how these can be used to date the asteroids to come up with the age of the solar system. It then goes into stellar composition and evolution and that most of the elements are created that way and then dispersed when the start explodes. There is some relativity thrown in, but not really even attempted to tie into "history." For this last part, there are other TTC courses that I thought were better: Fillipenko's Understanding the Universe and Wolfson's Physics and Our Universe. That being said, I really enjoyed the various ways of how isotopes can be used to date progressively longer time periods (and how tree rings and ocean sediments can be used to calibrate them). It was also helpful to see the other portions without feeling like I was drinking from a fire hose, but I had had exposure to those topics before.
Date published: 2015-12-19
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Some Good Content But Disorganized Perhaps I am jaded by all the excellent TGC courses I have taken relating to physics, cosmology, origins of life, and paleontology, but relatively speaking this course left me a bit flat. I read the reviews and understood that the real "Physics of History" (i.e. isotope dating techniques and the like) was only really a fraction of this course. Nevertheless this was the main learning I hoped to gain from this course, given the course title. The instructor seems to have aimed this course at liberal arts students, particularly history majors, as a way of fulfilling a college science course requirement. I have no problem with that. But as the course progresses he seems to move from a theme of "let me show you how important physics is to studying history" to one of "now let me show you how profound physics is in the formation of the universe". I guess this is understandable as later is more natural territory for an astrophysicist like Dr. Helfand. While I think the lectures on the physics of history accomplished their goal and it was quite interesting to learn how historian/archaeologists used physics principles to determine the age of cave paintings or how sleuths determined that canvas paintings were forgeries, the lectures on the physics of Earth's formation, star formation, and cosmology didn't measure up in content or quality of presentation with other TGC courses in these areas. Dr. Helfand's approach in presenting these was to cover the highlights which emphasized what he thought were the most profound observations. He thus presented a lot of concepts, but was not able to cover them in sufficient depth to really give a complete picture. The course itself was somewhat disorganized. His approach was to first cover some fundamental concepts in physics and then go backwards in time starting with art forgery detection, through ice cores, ocean sediments, etc to the formation of the Solar System, to the beginning of time with the formation of the universe. Seems logical at first, but there were a number of side trips along the way. Lecture 4 is about the atomic basis for the human senses. This was actually one of the more interesting lectures, but it hardly ft in the flow of the course. Similarly lectures 20-22 deal with the special theory of relativity. While these do provide a good explanation of the theory and the concept of spacetime, it is again somewhat of a side track for the flow of the course. Dr. Helfand's lecture style is a mixed bag. He has very good voice inflection and body language to emphasize his points, but he stands fixed behind a podium and is clearly reading from the teleprompter. As one other reviewer has observed after taking the course 2 years ago, there is a relative paucity of visual aids compared to other science courses; by the 2015 standard production TGC courses now use, this comment is even more true. Consequently, this is one of the few (of dozens) of TGC science courses I've taken where I wondered if it would have been better to have taken an audio only version. The one thing about this course that is excellent is the Course Guidebook. The guidebook contains fairly complete lecture summaries, such that a transcript is not needed. It also contains a glossary, biographical notes, and an annotated bibliography. But the essence of the course is included in three other sections of tables entitled Timelines, Events, and Half-Lives and other "Clocks" used in Dating. With the understanding of the physics explained in the corresponding lectures, these tables serve as an excellent reference for using to determine the age of historical happenings. I agree with some of the other critical reviewers who said that this should course should be broken up into two courses, one on "How Physics is used to Date History" with approximately 12 lectures and one on "Formation of the Universe through the Solar System". However, TGC has several excellent courses (e.g. Dr. Whittle's course on Cosmology) which cover the later topic in more detail with more physics. Perhaps my bias as someone who has a Physics education and as one who has worked in High Tech industry my entire career is coming through, but while I found completeness and what I was looking for in the "How Physics is used to Date History" portion of this course, I found the "Physics of the Universe" portion of the course to be somewhat superficial and only covering science highlights chosen to make a profound impression. This leaves the story somewhat disjoint without providing a comprehensive picture or overview. If this technique works to get folks who are more versed in the humanities interested in science, I guess that is a good thing. Obviously by the positive reviews, this approach has appeal for some. Nonetheless I would caution: "Caveat Emptor".
Date published: 2015-10-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Physics of History Superb course with enthralling content taught by a very engaging professor who is very organized and leads you forward into the physics of today. A MUST experience for anyone with a scientific yearning.
Date published: 2015-04-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good overall content; could be better organized This course meets its goal of explaining the physics behind the determinations of much of history. For that I can recommend it. Where it could be improved is in explaining why subsequent material will be helpful to the task at hand. Several times Professor Helfand gave a succinct 2-or-3 sentence motivation for the material, at the END of a session or two on a topic. Had those nuggets been given first, they would have given the learner a framework on which to hang the insights being offered. If you can "hang in there" and keep information in mind while waiting for the payoff of why the information is important, eventually it all comes together,
Date published: 2015-03-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from LOVE this course! I haven't even finished watching all of it and it is the most compelling Course I have had. I must be primed for the information because I find myself open mouthed sometimes, completely drawn in. I failed high school physics and never pursued science or math in college (I did get a Master's in Linguistics). I was leery of all the background physics (the first five lectures), and I certainly haven't "learned" all of it, but the whole presentation of what we can learn about the universe is fascinating. The instructor has a sense of humor and provides many visuals. I was glad when he discussed the art that hangs on the wall behind him. Overall, I will never think about burning myself on the stove the same way again and this course has given me plenty of food for thought. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Date published: 2015-03-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from When Did it Happen? How do you Know? When Did it Happen? How do you Know? Dr. Helfand is good. And the course is fun, and you walk away more comfortable in the Universe. As much as it sounds like it, this isn't a history course. An unexamined glance at the title might convey the idea that this does deal with history, the professor early on straightens out that misconception. It is a physics course, but it seeks to answer one of the critical questions of history, “When did it happen?” Dinosaurs, stars, paintings, plaster, ceramics, trees, people, everything is identified with some point in time, the time of creation or the time of death. Things as big as the universe, and as infinitesimal as muons, Dr. Helfand relates how we have pinned dates and durations on all of them. Dr. Helfand does a hard thing. He teaches his course to non-scientists. To those of us who have had to do this, that he is successful proves the depth of his knowledge of the topics. He must be able to dig down into the mathematics and convert it to word pictures that don't depend on involved mathematical relationships. He does this hard thing, and he does it extremely well. With a technical audience, the speaker is able to point to a questionable step in the process and say, “It obviously follows that...” and point to the next step. Few members of the audience will have the courage to admit their own lack of immediate comprehension. When the audience doesn't have the background, the speaker doesn't have this cover. Dr. Helfand doesn't need it. His explanations of isotope ratios as clocks is easy to follow, from the creation of the isotopes down to the total conversion to the daughter isotopes. The technical exposition is interleaved with a narrative history of the field that draws you in. Radiocarbon dating, used to date things as long ago as 50,000 years in the past, uses techniques that are younger than I am. The great thing about it is that I understand it, at least well enough to seek more information when I want it. .
Date published: 2014-09-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderfully Illuminating As one whose degrees are in history and political science, my experience with science courses is relatively limited. Despite this handicap, I found Dr. Helfand's course to be very enlightening and stimulating. He is a very pleasant and engaging presenter, and appropriately uses visual aids in explaining the intricacies of atomic interactions. While some may find (as I did) that the first few lectures -- I learned more about the behavior of atoms (within and without) than I had ever wished to know before -- they are nonetheless interesting and quite necessary in order to appreciate the richness of subsequent lectures. This course is a wonderful complement to the many fine historical and geological courses offered by the Teaching Company, but it also supplements them beautifully. By the completion of this course, I was more in awe of this marvelous universe -- inside, around, and outside us -- than ever before. The closer we peer, the more we understand, and the more we marvel at the beauty and mystery of the universe. Another home run by the good folks at the Teaching Company!
Date published: 2014-08-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Demanding But Informative I don't want to piggy back on what previous reviewers have wrote about this course, but I can't but help emphasize that this is not a 'History of Physics' but a PHYSICS course that demands the viewer's attention and assumes the student has a least a passing knowledge of physics, chemistry, and astronomy. Professor Helfand certainly does because he does not take the time to explain the principles and theories behind the lectures. My only complaint about the course is that, while it is not a history course, I wish the professor had arranged the course materials in more of a chronological (historical) order.
Date published: 2013-11-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Difficult but amazing DVD review. ©2013. Guidebook 146 pages. OK. I’ll confess. This was the hardest TGC course I’ve seen. I’m terrible at physics and chemistry, so I actually had to watch the first disc 4-5 times until it clicked. I’d try, then put it on the bookcase; try again, put it back and wait a while. Finally, on the last viewing, everything started clicking and it became absorbing and I blew through the whole course. I found it fascinating, wonderful, and amazing. At the end I just felt astonished by the progress humans have made to uncover what many believe to be the mysterious workings of the universe. I can’t speak more highly about the course and Professor Helfand. The foundation lectures are essential to understanding the rest of the course. They’re about energy, atoms, radioactivity, etc. No problem with the professor or his delivery. Failure was on my own poor background on physics and chemistry. The Resources were excellent; I found myself constantly reviewing the glossary. There’s more math than in other courses; it wasn’t terribly difficult, as the professor goes through it step by step. Just keep in mind that this is a SCIENCE course, not a HISTORY course. I highly recommend this course and it’s a great supplement to Big History.
Date published: 2013-10-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A twofer ... Maybe I was naive not to carefully read over the lecture titles for all 24 lectures, (whatever!) but what I got was not what I was expecting. I was looking forward to discussions of carbon 14 dating, analyses of tree rings, dating dinosaur digs and so forth. In other words, the application of aspects of physics to the understanding of our past. I got all of those, and more in the same vein. However, what else I got was not expected -- lecture after lecture on space time, relativity and the Big Bang. It appears that I got two courses -- one is the 'The Physics of History' course that I hoped for (lectures 1 - 15). The other is 'The Physics of Relativity and Spacetime' (lectures 1 - 5 and 16 - 24). The tossing in of both courses together was annoying. I was psyched for the first course but kept getting stuck with the second course. Now, my beef is not with the professor, or even the content of the course. The professor is a very likeable and quirky guy. One reviewer termed him a 'kindly uncle', and I really agree with that characterization. The content was excellent -- the discussion of relativity was the best I have ever seen. Rather my beef is with the jumbling together of two courses into one. The first course (of the two) was fun and enthralling, the second course was overwhelming and intense. I greatly wish that this had been broken into two separate courses, so I could better know what I was getting. I was annoyed all the way through the last number of lectures, to the point that it interfered with my enjoyment of the whole course. To me, the Teaching Company should have split this out into two 12 lecture courses. That way, I would have gotten what I wanted and expected, when I wanted it.
Date published: 2013-10-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Physics of History I thoroughly enjoyed Prof. Helfand's course 'The Physics of History'. It offered a distinctive, comprehensive and fully digestible way of appreciating my fundamental connection to everything in our Universe. That was 12 hours very well spent.
Date published: 2013-08-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Physics of History I am a physician (retired) and have time to learn in areas outside of my speciality. This course has been truely eye opening for me, far beyond any expectations I may have had. He made me think. I was continually going on line to better understand many of the concepts, not because he doen't explain things extremely well, but because this covers lots of ground. I feel I have a better qualitative understanding of the fundamental forcesand their interactions with particles. Concepts of space-time and their relationship to mass and energy were cleverely described. Even the origin of the universe and the well described particles with a nice time line were explaned with insights into how this was determined. Obviously there was lots about isotope dating, how it works, and problems of interpretation. This expands into the formation of the universe and our solar system, as well as helping to date historical events. My thanks to Dr. Helfand for months of enjoyment. He takes you about as far as you can go without being fluent in higher math. I am not niave to science, and this was a science course, but anyone can enjoy this if they make the effort.
Date published: 2013-06-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Interesting Presentation of Atomic History I enjoyed Prof. Helfand's presentation of Atomic history. I think it is important to remember that he holds this course out as science for students of the humanities. Therefore, students who are more inclined to science might want to take one of TTC's more rigorous courses such as "Cosmology" or "Astronomy." But, students who do not want such a rigorous scientific treatment will probably be quite happy with this course. I enjoyed Prof. Helfand's presentation. He has a quirkly sense of humor that worked well. His course guide was also helpful in following the lectures. I particularly enjoyed how he tied everything back to the atom. I thought this was an interesting approach to the material. I also enjoyed his description (in the last ten minutes of the course) of the life cycle of a sub-atomic particle from the Big Bang to the present. As alluded to above, I would recommend this course for students who are interested in physics and astronomy, but who do not want the scientific rigor of a course like "Astronomy" or "Cosmology." Otherwise, a thoroughly enjoyable course.
Date published: 2013-04-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding! Professor Helfand is an outstanding lecturer. He knows his material, has a great voice, speaks with authority, and explains concepts in a clear, concise manner. His use of humor, frequently self- deprecating, lightens the sometimes heavy course material. This course is indeed a physics course…not a history course. Insofar as” history” in the usual meaning of the word is covered, it is the history of scientific discoveries and the scientists involved…and there are frequent asides in that regard. Essentially, this course explains how science dates history from the relatively recent past back to the origins of the universe. ..and how science determines past climate, agriculture, diets, etc. With the exception of a few sections on tree rings, ocean sediments, etc., it relies heavily on atomic physics. Don’t let the words “atomic physics” scare you…we’re talking basic concepts here…mainly atomic structure and energy transfer. Helfand does an excellent job of explaining the understanding needed in the first few lectures. Little math is involved and, when it is, it is mainly multiplication and division and it is done for you. However, you’ll likely find the material comes at you fast and hard. This is not a criticism of Helfand’s presentation, as he explains things well. It is simply that there is a lot of material to absorb here. Unless you have a good understanding of atomic physics, my advice is to plan on repeating lectures 1 through 5 and especially, 2,3, and 5 until you understand these concepts before moving on to the remaining lectures. You’ll need to know the structure of atoms, what isotopes and radioactive decay are, how atoms combine to form molecules, energy transfer, etc. Without that understanding, the remaining courses will simply tell you what atoms science uses to determine dates, climate, etc. but you will lack understanding of the process. For example, you’ll know science uses carbon 14 to date organic material from the relatively recent past (something you likely already knew), but you won’t have a true understanding of how science does it and why it works…or even what carbon 14 is. Lectures 16 through 24 take us to time predating the earth…to the dating and formation of our solar system, the universe, and the very atoms which make up our material world. The lectures cover a significant amount of astronomy in the process and take us back to the very beginning of time itself. I have a degree in atmospheric physics which I earned some 40+ years ago. This course served as an excellent review of basic atomic physics as well as expanding that knowledge into the new world of quarks, leptons, etc. However, Helfand does such a great job of explaining this material that I do not feel a physics background is a prerequisite to the course. If you don’t have that background, just plan to review the early lectures where necessary…listen to what Professor Helfand has to say…and you’ll get it. I highly recommended “The Physics of History” to anyone with an interest in the subject matter. After taking it, you’ll understand how science is able to accomplish such things as determining art forgeries, how old a human skeleton is…his or her diet and where they were likely born, when a structure was built, how old a rock is, what the climate was like thousands of years ago…and on and on. Its well worth a second trip through it…and I plan to do so. An outstanding job in all aspects!
Date published: 2013-03-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Physics of History This is an excellent science course, repleted with well presented knowledge that should be well received by science lovers. But I also agree with one of the previous reviewer that, in actual, you cannot learn a lot unless you delve deep in to atomic science especially on isotopes. A small suggestion for those who start with the course, if I may, is to go to lecture 24 after the lecture 1 then come back and start with lecture 2. That appears to me more logical in grasping the content.
Date published: 2013-02-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Science Course This course is very well written. It is logically organized, presents its subject matter clearly early on in an interesting way. It does an excellent job building on items discussed in previous lectures. As a science buff with little technical training I found this course both interesting and educational. Professor Helfand has a style that is easy to listen to and follow. Not getting too bogged down in what we don't know but at the same time being fair in areas where there is still uncertainty. What I loved the most about this course was the logical foundation and building how of scientists know what they know about the past. I now have a much deeper understanding of how various dating techniques work and an appreciation for the confidence they can express in how old something is. I was delighted and surprised to have several lectures that provided me with a non-partisan understanding of climate change and the history of earths climate fluctuations. I recommend this course for both those who enjoy history and wonder how we know what we know. I also recommend it for those who enjoy science and want to build their big picture foundation of how we can speak with confidence about 64 million years ago or even 3.7 billion years ago.
Date published: 2013-02-17
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