Skywatching: Seeing and Understanding Cosmic Wonders

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

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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

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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

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Your professor

Alex Filippenko

About Your Professor

Alex Filippenko, Ph.D.
University of California, Berkeley
Dr. Alex Filippenko is Professor of Astronomy and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Physical Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his B.A. in Physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his Ph.D. in Astronomy from the California Institute of Technology. Dr. Filippenko's research accomplishments, documented in more than 500 scientific publications and 600...
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Skywatching: Seeing and Understanding Cosmic Wonders is rated 4.9 out of 5 by 48.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Astronomy Course Ever! This course was excellent and I recommend that any amateur astronomers getting started should pick up this course. It teaches you about the sky from clouds to the furthest galaxies in the universe. I owe many thanks to Dr. Alex Filippenko for his inspirational and informative courses.
Date published: 2012-06-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear and informative This is a very good course taught by a well-informed and enthusiastic professor. Plenty of pictures are provided and by the end one has a good grasp of stars, clouds and other findings in the skies. One note: there is no meteorology in this course. I was hoping, for example, to be able to predict the weather using the data from this course to use in sailing, but that is not what this course is about. The section on clouds for example describes cloud nomenclature without actually going into which ones predict fowl weather. Perhaps this belongs to the meteorology course. Also the 45 min lecture format seems a bit long after one has become used to the typical 30 min formats. However, the material is so well presented that it goes by fast. Overall, this is a nice introductory course to observing the sky and I recommned it without reservation.
Date published: 2012-05-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyed by the Whole Family We own several of the Great Courses across different subjects and received this course as a gift. The whole family enjoys it. There is such an excellent mixture of basic to more complicated material that is is accessible to and interesting for a mixed audience. Filippenko illustrates his points clearly and is a skilled presenter. Because the quality of the course is so high and the subject matter is so broadly appealing, I think this course is particularly well-suited to gift-giving.
Date published: 2012-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Marvelous Nexus of Science and Nature Professor Filippenko never ceases to amaze me. Frankly I doubt I have run across a better science professor anywhere. His astronomy course was spellbinding and his latest course is rich in content and meaning. There are so many wonders in the earth sky that for years were left to wonder and myth. Many of the topics in the course I have personally observed over the years but had little or no understanding of the science behind them. Dr Filippenko enthusiastically covers these wonders and uses his special gift of making sense of the science, while not diminishing from each of us the uniqueness of the observation. Using numerous photographs from around the world and great computer graphics he made the course especially interesting. Many of these photographs were taken by himself and others were submitted by amateur astronomers and photographers. This added immeasurably to the course content. Rainbows, sunspots, meteors, constellations, satellites, eclipses and many other areas were covered. Watching and listening to this course was so fulfilling that I was sad to see the end of the course arrive. This is a marvelous presentation and shouts out to be viewed by anyone fascinated by the day and night sky and the wonders they behold.
Date published: 2012-01-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Cant stop watching I caught the Filippenko bug just like everyone else. He makes everything fun and I'm going to buy every series he does. As a (~gulp~) fine arts major with no science background I'm following along well due to his clear and somewhat goofy presentation.
Date published: 2012-01-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Big Bang by Filippenko! The Teaching Company's Professor Alex Filippenko is to astronomy what Professor Robert Greenberg is to music. Dr. Filippenko is an excellent instructor whose ability to explain and hold your interest is rarely matched. This superb course covers additional topics as well as a deeper explanation of some found in other TTC astronomy courses. This course has 45-minute lectures whose length is normally found only in Greenberg's music courses. The extra time allows for more videos and illustrations as well as deeper and more careful explanations. In fact this added lecture length would greatly improve TTC course 'Our Night Sky’ by Professor Edward Murphy. While Dr. Murphy’s course is good, it would be greatly improved by the additional 15 minutes. Many times it appeared Dr. Murphy was rushing to finish all of the material he had planned for each lecture. Hopefully he and TTC will produce a second edition with the longer lectures which would allow Dr. Murphy to give deeper and more relaxed explanations. I cannot too highly recommend Professor Filippenko’s 'Skywatching; Seeing and Understanding Cosmic Wonders' as well as his other TTC courses ‘Black Holes Explained’ and his magnum opus ‘Understanding the Universe: An Introduction to Astronomy, 2nd Edition’.
Date published: 2011-12-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative, Interesting, and Excellent First of all, I would like to applaud TGC for expanding the usual length of 30 minutes to 45. That pays dividends in this course. For example, the professor is able to spend much more time on lighting, allowing for some excellent videos to illustrate principles about lighting that I had never known before. Visuals:This leads me to the visuals, which were spectacular! There were many videos, pictures, and diagrams. Some of them were from Professor Filippenko's personal collection. Presentation: Let me stress that Professor Filippenko's deliver left nothing to be desired: no stumbles, hesitations, awkward pauses, nor anything else that distracts. Instead, he gives us great voice inflection, hand gestures, facial expressions, and positive energy that spills over to the audience. A truly remarkable delivery, given that a lot of the material was technical. You can tell he put a lot of work into this. Content: I've taken astronomy courses as an undergrad, and I'm reminded of the interesting things I learned in that course. This course covers the topics listed on the course description. However, it goes into more detail or in new interesting ways than others might cover. For example, the information about auroras and how the light bounces off molecules in the air to form blue are two examples of in depth explanations of natural events. (And btw, if you love auroras as I do, this course is for you.) I really hope that TGC takes the time to consider expanding more courses to the 45 minute format like this one. It really paid off in this course as I am satisfied with the time and money invested. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2011-12-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Way better than expected! I had reservations about buying this course. I already have Alex's course on astronomy and the other on black holes, plus I have the Night Sky one and Neil Tyson's My Favorite Universe. I've been an amateur astronomer for about 10 years. Yet, I'm learning new things in this course! This course gives by far the best explanations for sky phenomena such as clouds and lightening than any other I've seen. Alex has laid out the material in a way that easily rolls from one topic to the next, and always he explains with great enthusiasm and authority on the topic. Loved the details about Red Sprites and blue jets, something you don't hear about often. I find this course very useful, and entertaining. Definitely worth buying. I'm recommending it to everyone, even if they have the other courses!
Date published: 2011-12-04
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