Skywatching: Seeing and Understanding Cosmic Wonders

Course No. 1852
Professor Alex Filippenko, Ph.D.
University of California, Berkeley
Share This Course
4.9 out of 5
48 Reviews
97% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 1852
Video Streaming Included Free

Course Overview

Step outside at any time of day or night, look up, and you're bound to see a world filled with limitless wonders: majestic rainbows, dramatic cloud formations, stirring sunsets, intricate constellations, captivating solar eclipses, and even the distant planets themselves. But these and other breathtaking natural phenomena are more than just pretty objects to be admired. Rather, they're the result of fascinating atmospheric and astronomical processes that describe right in front of you important concepts in scientific fields such as

  • cosmology,
  • physics (including optics and electromagnetism), and
  • meteorology and other atmospheric sciences.

These and other processes all too often go unappreciated by the average skywatcher. To truly understand and enjoy the wonders in the sky requires a solid understanding of the science behind where these wonders come from and how they're formed, as well as insights into the best times and places to see them and simple equipment and other steps you can use to improve what you see at any time.

Get an unparalleled visual guide to nature's most mysterious and beautiful offerings with Skywatching: Seeing and Understanding Cosmic Wonders. With these twelve 45-minute lectures, award-winning astronomer and Professor Alex Filippenko of the University of California, Berkeley, has crafted a visually stunning tour of the sky's most dazzling displays, most of which you can see even without binoculars. Using the same dynamic and engaging teaching style that has won him praise from countess lifelong learners around the world, he shows you new ways to see your surroundings and appreciate the marvels of both our planet and the entire universe.

Get Up Close and Personal with Nearby Phenomena ...

The first half of Skywatching reintroduces you to the amazing intrigue behind phenomena and objects that are nearby and in front of you almost every single day.

  • Clouds: While it may seem as if clouds are random formations of moisture in the air, they can, in fact, be organized into three major categories. Cirrus clouds are wispy and partly transparent. Stratus clouds look like horizontally extended sheets and often cover large areas. And cumulus clouds are quite vertical and look heaped.
  • Sunsets: Sunsets can be seen all over the world, but summer solstices far north or south are the best places to see truly long, dramatic sunsets. These types of sunsets happen when the sun sets at a shallow angle relative to the horizon rather than at a steep angle.
  • Rainbows: Contrary to popular belief, rainbows don't form after clouds and rain have disappeared, because they depend on the intricate interaction between light and rain. Also, rainbows move with you; so if you were to walk to "where the rainbow ends," it wouldn't be there anymore since it's always 40 to 42 degrees away from your antisolar point.

... As Well as with Wonders Far out in Space

You'll also discover more than you ever thought possible about features that lie far beyond our atmosphere.

  • Stars: While bright stars look larger to the naked eye, these stars are not necessarily bigger in physical size than fainter ones. Bright stars in the night sky look bigger due to an effect called irradiation, in which light hitting your eyes' retinas is scattered away from where the image is focused, stimulating a larger patch of your retinal cells.
  • Planets: There's a good rule of thumb to use to tell when you're looking at a planet instead of a star. If you see that the point of light is twinkling less than other stars of similar brightness that are roughly the same altitude above the horizon, then what you're seeing is likely a planet.
  • Meteors: If you see a few dozen meteors in an hour, chances are you're witnessing a meteor shower. During these showers, the Earth passes through the orbit of an old, disintegrating comet. Each year, there are one or two showers associated with a specific comet, depending on whether its orbital plane is tilted relative to Earth's orbital plane.

Packed with Stunning Visuals

One of our most intensively illustrated courses ever produced, Skywatching captures ground-eye views of how you can see everything from mysterious iridescent clouds to the ghostly corona of the sun through

  • personal photographs taken by Professor Filippenko;
  • jaw-dropping images from telescopes and observatories; and
  • detailed animations that break down scientific concepts.

An elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor Filippenko has won numerous awards for his ability to engage listeners and instill in them the awe and wonder at the sky above their heads. With him, you'll discover answers to dozens of questions that have perplexed all of us since we were children, such as why the sky is blue and why the full moon looks largest when it's closer to the horizon. You'll also get invaluable tips on how to become an expert skywatcher yourself and learn everything from how to safely look at the sun during an eclipse to the best times of the year to see specific planets and constellations.

Prepare yourself for a thrilling voyage, after which the sky above your head will never be the same again.

Hide Full Description
12 lectures
 |  Average 47 minutes each
  • 1
    Day and Night Skies across All Distances
    Embark on a brief tour of the grandeur of the sky above your head—both near and far—and get a better idea of the broad range of breathtaking objects and phenomena everyone can enjoy. x
  • 2
    The Blue Sky, Clouds, and Lightning
    Why is the color of the sky blue? How does polarization work, and how can it help you see objects in the sky better? What's the difference between cirrocumulus and cirrostratus clouds? Does lightning truly never strike the same place twice? Get answers to these and a host of other questions. x
  • 3
    The Rainbow Family—Sunlight and Water
    Rainbows. Coronas. Cloud iridescence. Strengthen your understanding and appreciation of the science behind these and other colorful phenomena that occur due to the fascinating interaction of water with sunlight. x
  • 4
    Solar Halos—Sunlight and Ice Crystals
    Travel higher up in the atmosphere and discover what happens when sunlight interacts not with raindrops but with frozen ice crystals. After learning how these delicate crystals are formed, you'll examine stunning photography that captures the wonders of everything from solar halos and mock suns to glitter paths and sun pillars. x
  • 5
    The Colors of Sunrise and Sunset
    What is the science behind a majestic sunrise or dramatic sunset? Find out in this lecture on the colors and features that accompany these breathtaking, everyday events. Professor Filippenko reveals the science behind—and offers skywatching tips for—blue moons, the "belt of Venus," alpenglow, green flashes, and more. x
  • 6
    Bright Stars, Constellations, and the Zodiac
    Stars and constellations are some of the most commonly sought-after features of the night sky. Here, learn how to spot such iconic star patterns as the Big Dipper; make sense of the zodiacal constellations; locate some of the sky's brightest stars; and learn just why it is that stars twinkle. x
  • 7
    Viewing the Planets and Their Motions
    How can you tell the difference between a planet and a star? When is the best time to see planets such as Mercury and Jupiter? What's the difference between retrograde and prograde planetary motion? Get the answers to these and other questions in this lecture on spotting each of our solar system's planets. x
  • 8
    The Moon, Phases, and Lunar Eclipses
    Looking up at the moon has always been a favorite pastime on romantic evenings. But there's actually so much more to see and experience when you look with a trained eye. Here, learn everything about the moon's craters and seas, follow its distinct lunar phases, ponder the "moon illusion," and explore lunar eclipses. x
  • 9
    Satellites, Comets, and Meteors
    Artificial satellites such as the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope. Famous comets such as Hale-Bopp, Hyakutake, and McNaught. Brilliant meteor showers and storms, including the Perseids and Leonids. Revel in the science of understanding objects that orbit Earth or the sun and the beauty of witnessing such objects move across our sky. x
  • 10
    Observing Solar Activity and Earth's Auroras
    Explore the inner workings of the sun; learn to look safely at amazing features such as sunspots, solar prominences, and captivating coronas you can see for yourself with the right knowledge and equipment. Also, learn how coronal mass ejections give rise to space weather (including solar wind), possible satellite disruptions and power outages on Earth, and the shimmering auroras of the northern and southern lights. x
  • 11
    Solar Eclipses—Marvelous Coincidences
    In this gorgeously illustrated lecture, follow the spectacular stages of a total solar eclipse, including first contact, totality, and the two "diamond ring" stages. Also, get tips on how best to view these marvelous celestial events—and where and when you can see them in the coming years. x
  • 12
    Celestial Sights When the Night Is Darkest
    In this final lecture, Professor Filippenko reveals some of the breathtaking stars, galaxies, and other phenomena you can see while skywatching under extremely dark conditions, and how to find them. Also, learn how the night sky has given us clues about the birth of the universe—and even our origins. x

Lecture Titles

Clone Content from Your Professor tab

What's Included

What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Instant Video Includes:
  • Download 12 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 3 DVDs
  • 184-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 184-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Meteor Shower Calendar
  • Suggested readings

Enjoy This Course On-the-Go with Our Mobile Apps!*

  • App store App store iPhone + iPad
  • Google Play Google Play Android Devices
  • Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Tablet + Firephone
*Courses can be streamed from anywhere you have an internet connection. Standard carrier data rates may apply in areas that do not have wifi connections pursuant to your carrier contract.

Your professor

Alex Filippenko

About Your Professor

Alex Filippenko, Ph.D.
University of California, Berkeley
Dr. Alex Filippenko is Professor of Astronomy and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Physical Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his B.A. in Physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his Ph.D. in Astronomy from the California Institute of Technology. Dr. Filippenko's research accomplishments, documented in more than 500 scientific publications and 600...
Learn More About This Professor
Also By This Professor


Skywatching: Seeing and Understanding Cosmic Wonders is rated 4.9 out of 5 by 48.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Answers to many lifelong questions I’ve wondered about the extra bands of colors below a double rainbow or the halo around my head’s shadow on a cloud bank below me. Now I know what causes these phenomenon, thanks to the professor’s clear explanations. I totally resonate with every “Cool!” and “Wow!” he exclaims. His enthusiasm is positively contagious.
Date published: 2020-04-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best the Great Courses offers Even as a lifelong amateur astronomer, I find this course to be one of those I will view many times again and have sent several copies to my family. Great, enthusiastic presentation and video material presented by a skilled and knowledgeable lecturer. The material is current and the subject matter extensive and well explained. One of my favorites of the seventeen Great Courses I enjoy daily. A super investment for all ages.
Date published: 2020-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Torn between 4 & 5 Stars Alex Filippenko is an excellent presenter and he knows his stuff. This is a nice little follow-on to his very excellent "Understanding the Universe: An Introduction to Astronomy". I wish there was time in the lectures for a bit more detail on some of the topics but it is very easy to follow.
Date published: 2019-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An appeal to an otherwise scientific subject. Simplistic approach to the subject inspires an introductory investment in an amateur telescope.
Date published: 2019-10-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 5 reasons I rated this 5 stars SUMMARY: a delightful, charming & interesting course. I was surprised. Though recorded around 2012, the subject matter is still timeless. 1 Not just a basic astronomy course. I've listened to most ALL of the TGC courses on astronomy subjects - including many courses in my 70 years of study. Yes, some of the fundamentals are reviewed but sky watching includes quite a bit MORE than just astronomy. 2 For those who think they are so wonderful, wise & important - they just might discover how UN-observant they might have been. 3 Superb photos, visual aids & excellently-prepared diagrams - which are about HALF the course video. 4 No annoying, endless & meaningless hand gestures - as in my previous TGC astronomy course. There I had to use my hand to cover my iPad to block the incessant BILL-YUNS of nonsense hand gestures which is the audio equivalent of the boring "UHHH" after every sentence. Alternatively in this course, professor Alex uses spontaneous & meaningful hand gestures to make a point or illustrate a concept. 5 The good professor ACTUALLY has a refreshing personality! How unique! Likely he's WHOLE-brained since most scientific lecturers have sawdust in their lower-right brain (the typical Star Trek BORG lecturer). Wow - if professors were like this, I'd go back to college.
Date published: 2019-05-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Instructor! I purchased this Great Course because I have a passion for astronomy and I recognized the name of the professor Alex Filipenko. I was not disappointed. Professor Filipenko was professional, well spoken and did not make the course boring. In fact, it was humorous at times. Very informative. Highly recommend!
Date published: 2019-04-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The sky is a wonderful canvas! This course seems to be a bit different than the other science type classes I have taken from TGC. It reminded me more of a guide to take better pictures of things up above us, although his focus, of course, was more on sky watching than taking pictures. I don’t know if this it the kind of course you would find in a university, but it was interesting at any rate. The professor is clearly enthusiastic and knowledgeable about this topic. He does come off looking goofy quite a bit of the time, and there are times where I wished he would be less redundant and much more quicker to get through a topic. But he does provide quite a bit of information that will make your observation of everything from clouds to distant stars more engaging. He gets into some scientific details along the way, but the most interesting information for me were the tips on where and when to find things in the sky, and what you can do to make your viewing experience more enjoyable. Overall, I am glad I purchased this course.
Date published: 2018-10-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I baught this course for my grandkids and have enjoyed watching it with them. Great course!
Date published: 2018-09-14
  • y_2020, m_11, d_26, h_16
  • bvseo_bulk, prod_bvrr, vn_bulk_3.0.12
  • cp_1, bvpage1
  • co_hasreviews, tv_2, tr_46
  • loc_en_US, sid_1852, prod, sort_[SortEntry(order=SUBMISSION_TIME, direction=DESCENDING)]
  • clientName_teachco
  • bvseo_sdk, p_sdk, 3.2.0
  • CLOUD, getContent, 8.62ms

Questions & Answers

Customers Who Bought This Course Also Bought

Buy together as a Set
Choose a Set Format