The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know

Course No. 1802
Professor Joshua Winn, Ph.D.
Princeton University
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Course No. 1802
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Course Overview

Half a century ago, television viewers thrilled to the exploits of the original Star Trek series with its mission “to explore strange new worlds.” Today, astronomers are doing exactly that, analyzing the data from advanced telescopes and discovering strange worlds orbiting other stars in our galaxy.

Most of the countless stars they are monitoring are invisible to the unaided eye, and the thousands of confirmed and candidate planets they’ve detected can’t be imaged directly, except in a few rare cases. Yet researchers are able to use subtle clues obtained in ingenious ways in order to assemble an astonishing picture of planetary systems far different from our own:

  • Systems containing “hot Jupiters,” giant planets orbiting so close to their host stars that it takes days—not Jupiter’s 12 years—to make one orbit.
  • Earth-sized planets orbiting even closer—in one case careening around its sun every 8 hours, completing three of its “years” in one of our days.
  • Planets circling two different suns, recalling the famous scene in Star Wars, where Luke Skywalker watches a double sunset from his home planet.

These results are much more than science fiction brought to life. They are an astronomical revolution, comparable to the Copernican revolution that established our current view of the solar system. As recently as 1990, it seemed possible that the solar system was an unusual or even unique phenomenon in our galaxy. Now we know that planets are everywhere, and we are living during a new golden age of discovery, with the prospect of finding many planets like our own.

The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know immerses you in this incomparable adventure in 24 beautifully illustrated half-hour lectures conducted by veteran planet hunter Joshua N. Winn, Associate Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

An award-winning teacher, Professor Winn is also a pioneer in the field of exoplanetary science—the study of planets beyond the solar system. He served on the science team of NASA’s Kepler mission, the most productive planet-finding effort to date, and he is taking part in a new space telescope project that will focus on finding rocky planets in the habitable zones of their parent stars, laying the groundwork for the ultimate objective: detecting earthlike planets with the chemical signatures of life. This goal may still be many years away, but meanwhile Dr. Winn and his colleagues are helping to rewrite the book on planet formation and the evolution of planetary systems.

A Scientific Detective Story

Designed for everyone from armchair explorers to serious skywatchers, The Search for Exoplanets follows the numerous twists and turns in the hunt for exoplanets—the false starts, the sudden breakthroughs, and the extraordinary discoveries. Dr. Winn covers all the necessary background, reviewing the simple mathematics of planetary orbits and the scientific principles behind the techniques that eventually found planets at mind-boggling distances from our home base.

Considering that a star is millions to billions of times brighter than even its largest planet, this is a scientific detective story like no other, involving methods such as these:

  • Astrometry: A star and its planet both orbit their common center of mass, typically a point slightly off-center from the center of the star. In principle, this effect can be observed as a tiny wobble in the star’s position in the sky.
  • Doppler shift: The slight wobble of a star due to orbiting planets can also be detected as a fluctuating color shift (known as the Doppler shift) in the star’s spectrum, as the star alternately moves toward the observer and then away.
  • Transit: When a planet crosses in front of a star (known as a transit), it blocks a small percentage of the starlight. Sensitive instruments can measure this minor drop in light level. The greater the dimming, the larger the planet.
  • Gravitational lensing: A foreground star acts like a lens when it passes in front of a more distant star, bending the light of the background star. If the star in front has a planet in the right position, the light temporarily bends a bit more.
  • Direct imaging: Most difficult of all is recording an actual image of an exoplanet, which has been compared to spotting a firefly buzzing around a searchlight, with a telescope thousands of miles away. Even so, it has been done!

These techniques not only signal the presence of planetary systems, but also allow astronomers to analyze the data to determine how many planets there are, how large, how far from their parent star, their likely compositions, and the characteristics of their atmospheres. Viewers of The Search for Exoplanets will feel like Dr. Watson in the presence of Sherlock Holmes, as Professor Winn extracts a wealth of information from a spectrum, a light graph, a diffraction pattern, and other subtle clues.

Explore Unknown Worlds

To help you grasp the vastness of the universe, Professor Winn demonstrates a virtual scale-model solar system, centered on Times Square in New York City, that serves as a yardstick for comparisons throughout the course. For example, if the Sun is reduced to the size of an adult human, then at the same scale Earth is the size of a grape, two and a half blocks away, and the closest star with a known planet is 32,000 miles away—a distance 30% greater than the circumference of the entire Earth. Imagine trying to detect a grape at that distance!

The lectures are lavishly illustrated with astronomical photographs, graphics, computer animations, and special effects that help you appreciate the extraordinary variety of planetary systems. And Professor Winn’s personal anecdotes add a human dimension, showing the challenge and excitement of science. Since exoplanetary science is unusually interdisciplinary, you are introduced to a wide range of fundamental ideas, including these:

  • Astronomy: Among the topics you cover are planetary science, stellar evolution, telescopes, cosmology, and asteroseismology (the science of star “quakes”).
  • Physics: You investigate orbits, tides, the electromagnetic spectrum, spectroscopy, optics, quantum mechanics, and special and general relativity.

  • Life sciences: You learn about the quest for life, which combines the search for signals from extraterrestrial intelligence with the hunt for biosignatures of microbial life.

After completing this fascinating course, you will be well equipped to understand one of the most momentous developments of our time. Exoplanets will be making big news for years to come, and at the end of the course Professor Winn describes ambitious projects that are on the drawing board as well as discoveries that he predicts for the near future. Perhaps the only reason exoplanets haven’t attracted more attention is that science fiction long ago prepared us for these wonders. But unlike the adventures on Star Trek, these projects are real. We invite you to join a scientist who is on a mission that can only be compared to the exploits of Columbus, Magellan, and Lewis and Clark.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Why Study Exoplanets?
    Learn about the exciting mission of exoplanetary science - the study of planets orbiting stars beyond the Sun. Review the eight planets in our solar system, which provide a baseline for understanding the more than 1,000 worlds recently discovered in our region of the Milky Way galaxy. x
  • 2
    How to Find an Exoplanet
    Given the extreme faintness of a planet relative to the star it orbits, how can astronomers possibly find it? Learn about direct and indirect methods of detection. As an example of the indirect method, discover why a planet causes a star's position to change, providing a strategy for locating exoplanets without seeing them. x
  • 3
    Doppler and Transit Planet-Finding Methods
    Explore two other indirect approaches for finding exoplanets: first, by measuring the Doppler shift in the color of a star due to the pull of an unseen orbiting planet; and second, by measuring the tiny drop in the brightness of a star as a planet transits in front of it. x
  • 4
    Pioneers of Planet Searching
    Chart the history of exoplanet hunting - from a famous false signal in the 1960s, through ambiguous discoveries in the 1980s, to the big breakthrough in the 1990s, when dozens of exoplanets turned up. Astronomers were stunned to find planets unlike anything in the solar system. x
  • 5
    The Misplaced Giant Planets
    Investigate 51 Pegasi b, the first planet detected around a Sun-like star, which shocked astronomers by being roughly the size of Jupiter but in an orbit much closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun. Probe the strange characteristics of these hot Jupiters," which have turned up around many stars." x
  • 6
    Explaining the Misplaced Giant Planets
    The standard theory of planet formation is based on our solar system. But does this view require revision based on the existence of misplaced giant planets - hot Jupiters circling close to their parent stars? Compare competing theories that try to resolve this conflict. x
  • 7
    The Transits of Exoplanets
    A tiny percentage of exoplanets can be detected transiting - or passing in front of - their host stars. Combined with Doppler shifts, transits provide information about a planet's size, mass, density, and likely composition. Learn how ambitious amateur astronomers can use this detection technique in their own backyards. x
  • 8
    Sniffing Planetary Atmospheres
    Survey the history of spectroscopy to understand how a telescope and a diffraction grating can disclose the composition of a star and its planet. Then learn how transits and occultations are ideal for analyzing planetary atmospheres, paving the way for the search for signatures of life. x
  • 9
    Stellar Rotation and Planetary Revolution
    Trace Professor Winn's own search for the subtle signs that tell whether a star has a tilted axis. Discover why this is an important clue in the mystery of misplaced giant planets. Also hear how he chanced into the field of exoplanetary science. x
  • 10
    Super-Earths or Mini-Neptunes?
    Learn how a sensitive new instrument led the way in finding planets smaller than the Jupiter-sized giants that dominated the earliest exoplanetary discoveries. Halfway in size between Earth and Neptune, these worlds have uncertain properties. For clues about their nature, consider how our solar system formed. x
  • 11
    Transiting Planets and the Kepler Mission
    The planet search took a giant leap forward in 2009 with the launch of the Kepler spacecraft, which used the transit technique to observe nearly 200,000 stars over a four-year period. Study Kepler's goals, results, and the persistence of the astronomer who championed it. x
  • 12
    Compact Multiplanet Systems
    Dig deeper into the treasure trove of data from the Kepler mission, which discovered hundreds of compact multiplanet systems, with planets much more closely packed than in our solar system. Explore the dynamics of these groupings, which have planets interacting strongly through mutual gravitation. x
  • 13
    Planets Circling Two Stars
    See how data from the Kepler spacecraft confirms a scenario straight out of the movie Star Wars: a planet with two suns. Investigate the tricky orbital mechanics of these systems. A double star also complicates the heating and cooling cycle on a planet. However, the view is spectacular! x
  • 14
    Lava Worlds
    Explore the theoretical limit of the smallest possible orbit for a planet, taking into consideration tidal stresses and other destructive processes. Then focus on Professor Winn's search for such objects, which found probable lava worlds - planets heated to rock-melting temperatures by their extreme closeness to their host stars. x
  • 15
    Earthlike Planets
    Begin your search for planets that may harbor life by studying the conditions that make Earth habitable, including its distance from the Sun, surface temperature, atmosphere, and oceans. Then examine strategies for finding earthlike planets and the progress to date. x
  • 16
    Living with a Dwarf Star
    The most common stars are class M dwarf stars, which are smaller and less luminous than the Sun (class G). Earth-sized planets are much easier to detect around M-dwarf stars, especially if the planets are within the relatively close-in habitable zone. Explore examples and the prospect for life on such worlds. x
  • 17
    Living with a Giant Star
    In billions of years, the Sun will expand into a red giant, possibly engulfing Earth. Learn how planet-finding techniques give astronomers insight into the processes inside giant stars. Then study the planets around these behemoths for clues about Earth's ultimate fate. x
  • 18
    Our Nearest Exoplanetary Neighbors
    Pinpoint the location of the nearest exoplanetary systems to Earth. First, get the big picture on the layout of our Milky Way galaxy, its size, and the Sun's position. Also learn why the Kepler spacecraft focused on exoplanets much more distant than those targeted by the Doppler technique. x
  • 19
    Finding Planets with Gravitational Lensing
    Get a lesson in Einstein's general theory of relativity to understand an effect called gravitational microlensing, which allows astronomers to deduce a planet's existence without recording any light from the planet or its host star. This technique reveals exoplanets that would otherwise go undetected. x
  • 20
    Finding Planets with Direct Imaging
    Turn to the most obvious way to find exoplanets: direct imaging. Explore the optics of telescopes to learn why spotting an exoplanet next to its parent star is so difficult. Then see how this limitation has been overcome in a handful of cases. x
  • 21
    Near-Term Future Planet-Finding Projects
    The success of exoplanetary science has spurred a wave of new projects to increase our knowledge of worlds beyond our solar system. Survey ground- and space-based programs that are now in the works. Professor Winn gives a preview of a space mission that he and his MIT colleagues are designing. x
  • 22
    Long-Term Future Planet-Finding Projects
    Peer into the future at ambitious projects that may one day succeed in collecting light directly from an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of a nearby star. Examine three different engineering approaches: the coronagraph, interferometer, and starshade. x
  • 23
    The Search for Life on Exoplanets
    Join the quest for life on exoplanets, focusing on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) - a hunt for signals from alien civilizations inspired by a landmark paper in 1959. See how the famous Drake equation points to factors that determine how many such civilizations may exist. x
  • 24
    Coming Soon: Biosignatures, Moons, and More!
    Explore the distinctive biosignatures that show the presence of life of any kind on an exoplanet. Then close with Professor Winn's tip sheet on exoplanetary discoveries likely in the near future - from evidence of moons to planets being destroyed by giant stars. x

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Your professor

Joshua Winn

About Your Professor

Joshua Winn, Ph.D.
Princeton University
Dr. Joshua N. Winn is the Professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University. After earning his Ph.D. in Physics from MIT, he held fellowships from the National Science Foundation and NASA at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Winn’s research goals are to explore the properties of planets around other stars, understand how planets form and evolve, and make progress on the age-old question of...
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The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 38.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great introduction to the field I thoroughly enjoyed this course. I learned a great deal. As a retired scientist I am impressed by the achievements in the search for exoplanets. I wish Professor Winn had spent some more time in discussing the difficulty of these observations--the sensitivity, the precision and the accuracy of the measurements required in exoplanet work. He discussed using the Doppler shift to detect star rotation and the perturbations caused by the planets of this rotation. I wish he had discussed the parts-per-billion (or even greater) precision required, the spatial (angular) resolution required, and the ability to detect these perturbations amid a sea of noise. I once heard a good explanation of difficulty in such parts-per-billion measurements to the lay public. It is similar to searching and correctly identifying a few persons from the entire population of the world! Not only that, the exoplanet researchers were trying to determine how much faster or slower these few people are walking than the rest of the people in the whole world! My comments here can also be applied to the Course Radio Astronomy, a course I thoroughly enjoyed as well.
Date published: 2018-03-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very informative Except for a little math this course explains extremely well exoplanets and their history.
Date published: 2018-03-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting material. Lecturer held my attention. While I didn't understand much of the math thankfully there wasn't much. Fascinating topic.
Date published: 2018-03-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Nice illustrations This was a very interesting course. Even though it is only a couple of years old, it is probably a bit dated, but still worth viewing. My knowledge of astronomy is pretty basic, so there were some parts that were difficult to understand. Also, the professor's use of formula's were completely beyond me. Still I enjoyed the course and learned a lot. I would recommend this course for someone who has at least an intermediate understanding of astronomy.
Date published: 2017-10-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from "...but some of us are looking at the stars." If you have ever owned a telescope, you’ll want to watch this course. Anyone reading this review has undoubtedly heard of the Kepler mission and is likely aware that astronomers have found thousands of exoplanets in just the last few years, very few of which are Earth-like. This course delves deeply into the search for exoplanets and shows how and why exoplanets are fascinating, whether Earth-like or not. You will learn a lot about Kepler and its findings, and learn how upcoming missions will finally give a solid answer to the question of how many stars have rocky planets in the habitable zone (which Kepler was designed to answer, but failed to do so due to failure of two of its reaction wheels). Professor Winn is the very model of the rational scientist, with a gift for explaining technical matters in a clear, logical way. You might get the impression after the first lecture that the course is going to be simplistic, but he covers many technical topics in later lectures, always maintaining a calm, slightly bemused manner, conveying confidence that the viewer will be able to understand his explanations. He’s also a bit of an equipment nut (as are most astronomers), so you’ll learn quite a bit about state-of-the-art astronomical technology. He’s also a scientist who has not lost touch with his childhood reasons for wanting to be a scientist and I think that children with a talent for science could appreciate this course as well. I know I would have loved watching this course at age 15. They could have dropped lecture 23 on SETI, which spends 30 minutes explaining that we have absolutely no idea if there is “intelligent life” (referring, apparently, to not just dolphin-like animals, but technologically advanced civilizations) anywhere else in the galaxy. Other than that, I found every lecture fascinating. This 2015 course is now two years old, which is a long time in the field of exoplanets. Professor Winn refers to doing an update to this course in ten years, and I hope that TGC lets him do so, but maybe in just five years. Two major space telescope missions important to exoplanet research launch in 2018 (James Webb and TESS), and there should be lots of new findings by 2020. He estimates that we won’t have the space telescopes needed to detect exobiology on Earth-like planets orbiting Sun-like stars for 30 more years. Hope he’s wrong on that score.
Date published: 2017-08-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from All you need to know about the subject! I listened to a library audio version of the course. Because I didn't have a CD drive that the accompanying disk for the course guide, I couldn't refer to the course guide. This hindered me but not being able to see the formulas that he discusses and to look at questions to think about. The lecturer discusses in different individual lectures the five methods of finding exoplanets and later compares them, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. He begins by giving a history of the search for exoplanets--however he skips the story of the search for Neptune and Pluto that some authors begin their accounts with. He then discusses hot Jupiters and ends the course by discussing the future of the field over four lectures. I imagine that if you were/are an astronomer or physicist looking to go into this field, the DVD version of this course would be all the background you would need.
Date published: 2017-06-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Trouble downloading I bought this course and I am having a difficult time downloading the video. I have never had such problems with a course before.
Date published: 2017-05-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good video Interesting information. The video discussed future plans to search for Exoplanets.
Date published: 2017-04-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good technology review The professor is very knowledgeable of the material being presented and provides a very understandable explanation of how the star data is gathered and analyzed to extract exoplanetary signals.. The video editors did very well in providing and highlighting visual aids to supplement the material being presented with one serious exception. Most of the time, the left side of the screen contains a monitor on which visual prompts are presented to complement the discussion. However, when these prompts are not being shown, an irrelevant moving star field replaces it with no obvious transition. Since the professor is normally discussing moving astrological objects, I frequently found my mind distracted trying to male sense of the star display. This totally unnecessary distraction could have been totally eliminated with a standard blue screen with much improvement to the quality of the presentation. This is the reason I did not give this course a 5 star rating.
Date published: 2017-03-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Disappointment in an interesting subject I had high expectations for a course on exoplanets. Frankly, I was expecting lectures on a par with Fillipenko's wonderful series on astronomy. I was greatly disappointed. The professor glossed over concepts and failed to provide any insight into the subject. I stopped watching the course after seven or eight lectures--there was just not sufficient content to keep me watching. This is one of the worst courses I have gotten from the Teaching Company.
Date published: 2016-10-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know Fascinating topic and flawless delivery. At times might come across a bit hard to follow for non-scientists like me but it is still much easier to comprehend in comparison to any scientifically written piece on this subject.
Date published: 2016-09-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Subject Matter, Excellent Presentation This course is presented in a logical and well-ordered manner by a lecturer who is both extremely knowledgeable about and very passionate for his subject. The subject itself is fascinating enough, but Professor Winn resists any temptation to jump to the sensational aspects of this topic, choosing first to build from the ground up, with a careful explanation of what exoplanets are, how they have been discovered in the past, recent techniques and methods for their discovery, how the science and technology has evolved over the years and what the future holds. He has a pleasant tone and cadence to his voice and presents at just the right pace, easy enough to follow, without having to slow down or repeat his information. I watched this course on DVD and found that the visual presentation added to a better understanding of the content for me, beginning with Professor Winn's scale model of the solar system (placed in Manhattan), and found the visual imagery made it easier to better understand concepts such as transits and other planet-finding methods. For me the strength of this course was the lecturer's ability to clearly explain complex subject matter, especially for someone like me who lack an extensive science background. He also demonstrates the ability to merge fact and science fiction where helpful, and to point out when it is inappropriate or silly to do so. I would recommend this course highly for anyone who is curious about what the future of planetary exploration and discovery holds in store.
Date published: 2016-08-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Lot of "Oh Wow!" Content I have gone through other Great Courses astronomy lectures and read several books touching on exoplanets, but this course introduced so much new information and was explained so clearly that I was amazed at how often the course had me thinking, "Oh wow, I have not heard that before." Because the field is so new and making new discoveries almost daily, it is hard to find information that feels current, but this course does that. For those with a good background in astronomy the first lecture or two might seem a little too basic, but what follows in the remaining lectures will leave that feeling of being too basic behind. For those not schooled in the basics of astronomy, Professor Winn covers what you need to know. For those that like to see some of the math behind the science it has that at the basic algebra level, but does not dwell on it for those that would just as soon skip the math. An excellent course. I hope that The Great Courses will invite Professor Winn back to do more on the same subject.
Date published: 2016-07-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know Extremely good presentation of the subject. The lectures are clear and precise, no rush or hurry and you quickly end up understanding such a complex matter that this subject is. It is a very good achivement brought to us by prof. Winn.
Date published: 2016-06-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding I've enjoyed all 10 of the science courses that I have taken from The Great Courses, but some stand out more than others. This is one of them. As of the time I'm writing this, the subject matter is as up to date as one can expect for such a rapidly advancing field (copyrighted 2015). The professor is one of the best. His knowledge of the field is deep, his voice is easy to listen to, and his delivery is smooth albeit a bit slower than I like. Unfortunately, he is in such a narrow field that he will probably never make another course for TGC. That's too bad. For once, I have to heap praise on TGC's AV department. They seem to have cut out the unnecessary and annoying background music accompanying visuals while the professor is speaking. In fact the only time sound other than the lecturer's voice is heard is, quite appropriately, when he compares planetary resonances to musical resonances. The visual aids, however, are plentiful and definitely enhance the learning experience. 50 years ago I was an organic chemist, so I had (in the distant past!) a pretty good science background. Nevertheless, I think anyone with an adequate high school education should be able to understand the logic behind the science. Bottom line: If you are interested enough in this course material to be reading what I have written, you should buy this course.
Date published: 2016-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the 'Great' Great Courses! I have just completed this course at a rate of one episode a day, and I can honestly say that every single one of those days proved an excellent investment in my time. Quite apart from learning about the current state of the search for exoplanets, I also learned a good deal about chenmistry, physics, engineering and biology. I would particularly praise the lecturer, Joshua Winn. Going at a steady pace, everything was explained clealy with no assumptions made of the viewers prior knowledge. I thoroughly recommend this course to anyone interested in astronomy or who simply asks the question, "Are we alone in the universe or are there other habitable planets with intelligent, or even non-intelligent, life forms." A great investment of time and money!
Date published: 2016-05-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Exploring Planets Beyond Our Own The Search for Exoplanets is the latest astronomy course offered by the Great Courses. Using some cutting edge graphics and the most recent scientific information available, Professor Joshua Wynn takes you through a tour of known space to see how we have discovered planets outside our own solar system. This course is for anyone with a love to astronomy or those science fiction fans wanting to go where no man has gone before. Professor Wynn was a very good professor who puts large and hard to understand concepts into a simple understanding. The best example he used was doing a size comparison between planets and pieces of fruit, and followed it up with the distance between the sun and the respective planets as plotted out on the streets of New York. Those are the kinds of things I enjoy in science class. I hope to see more courses by him in the near future.
Date published: 2016-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting course It is pretty crazy how far this field has come in the last 20 years. 20 years ago, we knew nothing but our own solar system. Now there are thousands of known solar systems. It turns out ours isn't very representative. Some of this is coincidence. But also the anthropic principle. If we had a crazy solar system, we wouldn't be here to discuss it. Good presentation on a very interesting topic.
Date published: 2016-03-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from ExoPlanets The presenter is excellent, however the background is a bit boring. The diagrams and photos used are ok, however in between not so special. Have problems with a few sessions freezing up, needing me to play with the pause and play icons until I could resume viewing. A bit annoying, but the first course where I have experienced this. The others have all been ok. The content is excellent, a little bit more than I need at times, however its meant for a wide audience. Much enjoying, and half way through at this point.
Date published: 2016-02-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The latest information on what they are finding This field is moving so fast that even though this is a new course, some of it is already outdated. An excellent explanation of how they find things like that huge object out past Pluto. It didn't make the course but at least you will understand how they discovered it.
Date published: 2016-01-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Stretched My Imagination Just the right balance between science and art in a field that boggles the imagination
Date published: 2016-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating! Joshua Winn is easy to listen to and very enthusiastic about his subject. His lectures are worth a second and third viewing.
Date published: 2016-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Heavy topic presented mostly un-heavily Prof. Winn's course about exoplanets is the first time (out of a few dozen Great Courses) that I feel like I actually got about 80% of the scientific concepts. As a social scientist and linguist by hobby and trade, I tend to go into the scientific GCs with a lot of excitement but wind up skipping large portions of the course because of the intense physics or chemistry presented. I did so with Meteorology, Nanotechnology and Science of Sleep and only got marginal enjoyment out of them. In Exoplanets however, Dr. Winn has a great way of explaining these astrophysical concepts without drowning the non-scientist in terminology and theory. In fact, I've seen reviewers comment that the course is too scientific, but I have to offer an admonishment: the first 2 or 3 lectures present a lot of math, but once those formulae are out of the way, the lecturer doesn't depend on them, nor does he depend on you to know them in order to get the concept. In each lecture, he gives very down-to-earth (!) discussions on the topic, and then says "If you want to look at it mathematically, here's the formula..." after which he quickly flashes it for the physicists who are taking the course. Take it from a linguist, this is a highly accessible course. Dr. Winn, who reminds me a bit of a lovable "Big Bang Theory" character in appearance and voice, is really a personable professor. He uses self-deprecation and popular scifi references to remind us he's not "above us" and the man knows this subject: he's the avant-garde of exoplanetary research. And for those of us who don't know much more about exoplanets than what we know and love from "Star Wars" and "Star Trek," Winn makes sure to assure us he loves that stuff too. There are actually references to Tatooine and Mustafar in this course! Enjoy.
Date published: 2016-01-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Nice Addition to Courses on Universe This course by Professor Winn is a nice addition to the suite of courses on various Universe related topics offered by The Great Courses. Some of the other courses mention potential planets around other stars but don’t provide any details about these planets or how they are found. This course by Professor Winn provides that missing information from the suite of The Great Courses offerings. Professor Winn provides a nice description of how the topic of planetary science has evolved from a discredited field to one of the hot fields in the research of the universe. Professor Winn also provides excellent descriptions of the various techniques and associated limitations that are used to find these planets on distant stars. It is absolutely amazing how planets can be found orbiting planets that are only a point of light in the best telescopes. In the last four lectures, Professor Winn explains how this is only the beginning and there is the possibility of great finds in the next 10 to 20 years. I highly recommend this course to anybody who has an interest in the wonders of the Universe. Also, The Great Courses production staff uses a creative presentation environment instead of the usual studio which makes this course fun to watch as well as informative.
Date published: 2015-12-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course on a fascinating and timely topic This is an excellent course. I have been thinking for some time that you guys should do a course on this topic, and I want to thank you for putting together such an outstanding course. Professor Winn is an excellent teacher. He carefully and thoroughly explains all new concepts and briefly reviews any topics from previous lectures as needed. The visual aids were very helpful. He did not shy away from the mathematics involved, but it is easily understood by anyone with a knowledge of algebra. As an engineer, I especially appreciated his going into details of the techniques used in planet hunting. He makes good use of his hands in emphasizing points without it being distracting. His sense of humor is refreshing, for instance when he points out that whenever a scientist tells you he has some typical data, it is really the very best data he could find! All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this course and look forward to any more courses that Professor Winn might present in the future.
Date published: 2015-12-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Timely & Informative Account of an Emerging Field Joshua Winn of MIT leads the viewer on an informative journey into the fastest growing area of astrophysics - the search and identification of exoplanets, or those planets circulating star systems in other parts of our galaxy. The course is well-planned and well-paced with 24 lectures covering all aspects of exoplanet research. Yes, there is some math, but nothing a student with a modest background in physics - or a purchaser of other physics-based Great Courses - can't handle. Dr. Winn clearly explains all the concepts and related equations. The graphics are clearly presented. The course is well-timed as Winn makes a reference to the recent movie "Interstellar" in his discussion of relativity and time dilation. This is a fast-emerging field in astronomy and astrophysics and it wouldn't surprise me if this course is updated in 5-10 years with new and expanded information. It was very enjoyable. As companion volumes to this course, I highly recommend the 3 courses listed below this review.
Date published: 2015-11-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know This was a very informative and well presented course by Prof. Winn. It clearly covers both the history and reasonable thorough technical aspects for Exoplanetary investigations. Prof. Winn speaks clearly and in a very interesting and engaging manner on this topic he clearly knows so well. This is a field I have followed since the early 90's , having attended many lectures and panel discussions with such pioneers as Marcy and Butler, and I found the material very well organized and presented in a manner that I enjoyed. Better still other non-technical members my family also understood and found this course very interesting and informative. This course provided not only good review for the state of Exoplanet searches and knowledge in 2015, but very nicely covered where it is and can go in the future, Thanks Prof. Winn for a really well done course. My thanks also to the Great courses team for helping to developing another excellent course!
Date published: 2015-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Survey of a fledgling physical field (audio) The course provides a comprehensive and thorough survey of the fledgling field of Exoplanet research. It is thorough not in the sense, obviously, that you can after hearing the course carry out your own astronomical calculations, or write data analysis software that can discover new exoplanets. It is thorough in the sense that after hearing the course you get a good overview of the field's evolution, motivations and technologies. The first point that is made clear is how challenging this field is. Planets are tiny in Astrophysical scales and do not emit any light (or at least very little compared to their associated star), so detecting them is extremely difficult. This is the main reason why this field has only recently begun to develop quickly – no viable technology was available. The first chunk of the course is devoted to describing the main techniques that are available to astronomers for discovering exoplanets. There are in fact only a few techniques: Doppler shifts in absorption spectra, dips in star radiation amplitude as the planet "eclipses" its star, direct imaging of planets and gravitational lensing. As is illustrated in the course, astronomers have been able to perform wonders with this meager offering of tools and have employed them in fantastically creative manners. Professor Winn's narrative of how these tools were used was absolutely fascinating and was for me one of the highlights of the course. He explains the basic physical mechanism that these methods use, and as a repercussion what would be their advantages and disadvantages relative to other methods. As it turns out there is no one method that can measure all of the potential planets a star can have. Each has its "sweet spot" of planet populations for which it is best tuned. The next obvious question is: can we at the end of the day take all of the measurements of all of the methods and consider this to be reliable planet statistics? The answer is probably no, since most methods have a harder time detecting smaller planets, and the main ones used today favor those with smaller orbits. The nice thing about this field of study is how basic the questions are… Astronomers are asking questions as basic as how many planets are there per star? How many could be potentially inhabitable with life? Do most planets have circular orbits around their star, such as in the solar system? Are all of the planets of a star usually co-planar? In most fields of physics , research has already answered most of the really basic questions, so this is really refreshing... Another nice aspect of the field is that many new physical phenomena are discovered without even being anticipated. A prime example is in the lecture about gravitational lensing, in which we are told that there appear to be a huge number of planets apparently "starless" floating out in space. Nobody had anticipated this prior to making the astronomical observations. To wrap it all up, Professor Winn does a very nice job in explaining the motivation for carrying out this research in the first place. The most obvious reason is to try to find life on other planets, but in fact there are many fascinating astronomical aspects that merit carrying out this research on their own, such as the basic question of how planets are born and which of them have stable orbits. My background is in Physics. I heard the audio version and found it easy to follow, but perhaps for people with less mathematical background it would be easier to follow the video version since there are quite a few references to formulas (I assume they are shown in the video version). Professor Winn is a very fine presenter. The course was outstandingly well structured and clear, and after completing the course I feel that I have quite a good grasp on what this field is about, its motivations, its technology and its future evolution. Time well spent!
Date published: 2015-10-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Search for Exoplanets - What Astronomers Know Professor Winn's lecture style is easy going and he makes the material presented very clear and understandable. If you are interested in exoplanets I highly recommend this 24 lecture series. Another good lecture series from The Great Courses. I recommend The Search for Exoplanets and The Life and Death of Stars lecture series as a set purchase.
Date published: 2015-10-08
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