What Einstein Got Wrong

Course No. 1307
Professor Dan Hooper, Ph.D.
University of Chicago
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Course No. 1307
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What Will You Learn?

  • the basic principles of special and general relativity.
  • Einstein's pioneering work in quantum theory.
  • the philosophical outlook and personal prejudices that led Einstein to reject or question many staple ideas of modern physics.
  • the important role of mistakes in science.

Course Overview

He was the quintessential genius whose brainpower rewrote the laws of the universe. Albert Einstein may have died decades ago, but his immense legacy continues. Who has not heard of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which revolutionized our understanding of space, time, and matter? His other discoveries are themselves titanic achievements that on their own would have made him a famous scientist.

But Einstein was not infallible. He rejected the possibility of black holes, and he was reluctant to accept the concept of an expanding universe or that gravity waves might exist. All are predicted by his general theory of relativity, and all have been well confirmed by observations. Furthermore, he was practically alone among his peers in resisting the startling implications of quantum mechanics—a theory that he helped found and whose strange picture of reality has been verified in experiment after experiment.

In other words, what Einstein got wrong includes some of the most exciting science of our time.

In a course aimed at the scientifically curious at all levels, What Einstein Got Wrong focuses on the great scientist’s mistakes as a window into his mind—his thought processes, prejudices, and philosophical outlook. Studying Einstein’s errors may well be the best way of getting inside the head of this incomparable and enigmatic thinker, who was so influential that Time magazine named him the Person of the Century in 1999.

Your professor on this thrilling intellectual journey is Dr. Dan Hooper, a researcher at the forefront of physics and a popular author and speaker on particle physics and cosmology. Dr. Hooper is Senior Scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and Associate Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago.

In twelve half-hour lectures, Dr. Hooper discusses Einstein’s ideas—right and wrong—using minimal mathematics, so it’s accessible to curious minds everywhere. Those new to Einstein’s ideas will find What Einstein Got Wrong an excellent survey of the full scope of the master’s work, while those more experienced with physics and relativity will relish Dr. Hooper’s insights into Einstein’s legacy in modern physics, which lives on in myriad ways. Even Einstein’s mistakes inspired others along productive paths.

Einstein Invents Relativity but Doesn’t Fully Buy It

You begin with a two-lecture review of what Einstein got spectacularly right, notably his special and general theories of relativity. Proposed in 1905, special relativity introduced such concepts as the constancy of the speed of light, the relativity of simultaneity, time dilation, and the equivalence of mass and energy. General relativity, published a decade later, greatly enlarged the scope of special relativity by incorporating gravity, which Einstein showed is a geometric property of space and time.

Special relativity created a sensation among Einstein’s fellow scientists, but general relativity made him world-famous, giving him a reputation as a scientific magician. That reputation stuck, and only his colleagues appreciated the setbacks that dogged him throughout his career as he struggled to develop and interpret his theories:

  • The relativity race: Einstein had the conceptual pieces of general relativity in place long before he worked out the mathematical details. Unwittingly abandoning a promising path to a definitive theory, he suddenly discovered he was in a race with the world’s foremost mathematician, who was working on his own formulation of general relativity. Einstein barely won.
  • Black holes banned: The first meaningful solution to Einstein’s equations of general relativity were worked out by mathematician Karl Schwarzschild, whose calculations showed the possibility of infinitely dense objects, later dubbed black holes. Einstein held that natural forces would prevent such bizarre phenomena, and his influence long persuaded other physicists that black holes were impossible.
  • His “biggest blunder”: Convinced that the universe is static and eternal, Einstein added a cosmological constant to his formula for general relativity to forestall the instability his theory predicted. When astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding—that is, it’s unstable—Einstein reportedly called the constant his “biggest blunder.”

Einstein Fights the Quantum Revolution

Along with relativity, the other great revolution in physics in the 20th century was quantum mechanics. Einstein led the way here too, by proving the particle nature of light and that atoms really exist. As with relativity, he was wary of accepting the full implications of the developing theory:

  • “God does not play dice”: Experiments showed that matter behaves very strangely at the quantum scale. Einstein’s friend Max Born proposed that the traditional view of cause and effect does not apply in quantum mechanics, where interactions can only be understood in terms of probabilities. Einstein dismissed this view with the remark, “God does not play dice with the universe.”
  • Schrödinger's cat: Working with colleagues Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, Einstein devised a thought experiment that showed an apparent impossibility in a quantum state later called entanglement. This was the inspiration for Erwin Schrödinger's famous paradox involving a cat that is simultaneously dead and alive. But impossible or not, entanglement turns out to be real.
  • Unified field theory: Inspired by James Clerk Maxwell’s unification of electrical and magnetic phenomena in a single theory called electromagnetism, Einstein sought to do the same for electromagnetism and relativity. His hope was that this “unified field theory” would restore determinism and scientific realism to the quantum world. But his labors were fruitless.

Dr. Hooper stresses that Einstein’s miscalculations, oversights, and false leads do not detract from his greatness. In the final lecture, he points out how missteps also plagued the careers of Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton—three other indisputable giants in the history of science.

Indeed, mistakes are fundamental to scientific progress. One of Einstein’s colleagues at Princeton University, the physicist John Wheeler, observed that “our whole problem is to make mistakes as fast possible.” Only by priming the pump with theories that can be tested against evidence do we advance closer to the truth, throwing out the bad theories and improving the good. The beauty of science is not that it is infallible but that it corrects its mistakes. Einstein was a ceaselessly creative participant in this process, as you learn in What Einstein Got Wrong.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 28 minutes each
  • 1
    What Einstein Got Right: Special Relativity
    Einstein is the most famous and influential scientist of modern times. But no one is perfect, and his powerful intuition led him astray in several key areas of physics, which are now among the most fruitful areas of the discipline. Begin your study of Einstein mistakes by looking at what he got spectacularly right, starting with his revolutionary special theory of relativity. x
  • 2
    What Einstein Got Right: General Relativity
    Einstein's greatest triumph was his general theory of relativity, which built on special relativity and led to a radically new understanding of the geometry of space and time. Einstein followed a rocky road to this breakthrough, with mistakes that hampered his progress and almost gave the honor of discovery to a rival. x
  • 3
    Einstein's Rejection of Black Holes
    The most astounding prediction of general relativity was considered so absurd by Einstein that he rejected it out of hand. Learn how the concept of black holes emerged from his theory and how he dismissed it, even as other researchers were gaining a detailed understanding of the theoretical properties of these strange objects. Only after Einstein's death were black holes proved to exist. x
  • 4
    Einstein and Gravitational Waves
    General relativity predicts that objects with mass radiate extremely faint gravitational waves when they interact. Einstein was reluctant to accept this idea, but after his death evidence began accumulating that gravity waves do, in fact, exist—as shown by the detection of gravity waves from distant colliding black holes starting in 2015. x
  • 5
    Cosmology and the Cosmological Constant
    Investigate what Einstein reportedly called his “biggest blunder”: his insistence that the universe is static, despite the prediction of general relativity that space is either expanding or contracting. Explore why general relativity is inconsistent with a static universe, and chart astronomer Edwin Hubble’s pioneering observations that prove we live in an expanding cosmos. x
  • 6
    The Cosmological Constant and Dark Energy
    Einstein tried to make general relativity compatible with a static universe by adding a cosmological constant to his equations, a move he later regretted. Learn how this “blunder” now looks prescient in light of the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, driven by some unknown dark energy. Einstein appears to have been right to add the constant, but for the wrong reason. x
  • 7
    What Einstein Got Right: Light Quanta
    Along with relativity, Einstein's major contributions to physics include his proof that light is made up of discrete quanta, an insight that led to the quantum revolution. Retrace his route to this key discovery. As with relativity, his genius was to break out of the classical mode of thinking about light and matter, going wherever experiment, logic, and mathematics led him. x
  • 8
    Does God Play Dice with the Universe?
    Probe Einstein’s devotion to the principle of determinism, seeing how it prompted him to reject the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics accepted by most of his peers. Einstein famously said that “God does not play dice,” meaning that quantum events only look probabilistic. He sought to make the quantum world less weird by finding a deterministic version of the theory. x
  • 9
    Quantum Entanglement
    Follow Einstein’s quest to overturn the standard view of quantum mechanics known as the Copenhagen interpretation. Focus on his famous EPR paper, written with two collaborators, which identified a paradoxical phenomenon later called entanglement. Study two proposals to supplant the Copenhagen view: the “hidden variable” and “many worlds” interpretations. x
  • 10
    The Search for a Unified Field Theory
    Einstein spent the last decades of his life searching for a unified field theory that would unite general relativity with Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism. But by then, quantum theory had superseded Maxwell's work, rendering the entire exercise futile. See how this quest has nonetheless stimulated ideas for unification in proposals such as string theory. x
  • 11
    Problems with Time Travel
    Einstein’s friend Kurt Gödel discovered a solution to the general relativity equations that implied the possibility of time travel, an idea that Einstein found interesting but impossible. Was he right to dismiss time travel? Explore other solutions to Einstein’s equations that posit the existence of rotating black holes and worm holes, which may be portals to the past and future. x
  • 12
    What Other Giants Got Wrong
    As a scientist who sometimes got things wrong, Einstein was in good company. In this last lecture, investigate the mistakes of three other great thinkers: Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton. Despite their triumphs in astronomy and physics, they, like Einstein, sometimes pursued intriguing but false leads. Consider the examples that their careers set for how science progresses. x

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Your professor

Dan Hooper

About Your Professor

Dan Hooper, Ph.D.
University of Chicago
Dan Hooper is a senior scientist and the head of the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). He is also Associate Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago. Dr. Hooper received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He was later a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford and the David Schramm Fellow at Fermilab....
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What Einstein Got Wrong is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 60.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great view of the heart of science Back in '60s I studied engineering. I always found physics captivating and ended my formal college time completing a masters in it. At the time, and coming from an engineering background, I found the process and insight in the development of modern (relativistic and quantum) physics to be mind-expanding -- not just in terms of what one found there, but in understanding scientific curiosity and initiative. Dr. Hooper's course provided an opportunity to revisit and explore those same epiphanies and feelings at the completion of my career as I did back then at the beginning. Beyond that, Dr. Hooper does a superb job of explaining failure as a component of the adventure and scientific thought. That is of tremendous comfort to those of us with four or so decades in science and engineering. This course is worth five stars for any of several reasons: First would be Dr. Hooper's faultless and energetic presentation. Second would be a review and synopsis of the development of modern physics along with the rough spots, third is certainly the perspective Dr. Hooper provides on the adventure of science and the accomplishments of some of its greatest people, and certainly his perspective on success and failure. I loved this course -- couldn't put it down. I think the video added a lot to what might have been hard to follow and synthesize aurally. Seeing some of the diagrams and equations provided instant cognition in sync with the lecture that might be harder without them. To be fair, the opportunities for cognition are layered and a person without a physics or math background could happily dwell in the concepts and their development without the finer detail.. I liked this course!
Date published: 2018-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Explaining a difficult topic, well done I have always been interested in astrophysics, so when this course appeared at a very attractive price, I went for it. It was well worth it. Dan Hooper may not win any awards for charisma, but I found his lectures to be clear, fascinating, and easily understandable. Unlike many other lecturers I have seen, he had no obvious distracting personal hubris, bias or agenda that is so typical of many other lecturers (who evidently can't help themselves). He beautifully underscores how progress in science is a hit-and-miss effort, and all scientists - even great ones - sometimes get things wrong in the process of advancing our scientific knowledge.
Date published: 2018-11-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Tantalizing for people who are new to the topics The lectures are well presented and not too esoteric. Perfect for the casual person or those interested in the general topics
Date published: 2018-10-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from While the lectures were well-prepared and presented, the constant shift among three camera angles was jarring and distracted from the content of each lecture.
Date published: 2018-10-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very well done. Right level for the interested layman. xxxxxxxxxxxx
Date published: 2018-10-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The strange consequences of Einstein's theories Over the years I have purchased over 200 courses from the Great Courses. This course is in my top 10. It did an excellent job of explaining the counter-intuitive consequences of Einsteins theories and showed how even he had problems accepting some of those consequences. For the first time, I understand such concepts as the expanding universe. I was disappointed when the course was over.
Date published: 2018-10-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Einstein made accessible. This course provides a concise review of Einstein's great theories and what his contemporaries thought about the phenomena they explained. It's great to replay and review these ideas from now on. With courses like this Teaching Company is providing a great value at a price that is accessible to all as well!
Date published: 2018-10-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What the Great Courses got right. I live for new science and math releases, so I was pleased to see this topic as a new course. I’m going to rate the title based on it being an introductory level course. That’s not to say that I didn’t learn a few things watching the lectures. I just want to warn those with a strong science background that you will most likely already know the topics discussed. I do recommend this course for people who want to know more about topics like Special and General Relativity, Black Holes, and Light Quanta. It amazes me how little relativity is taught in high school almost 115 years after Einstein bested Newtonian physics. This course can serve as a good launching point for several other Great Courses titles that cover these topics in much greater depth. A favorite of mine is “Black Holes, Tides, and Curved Spacetime: Understanding Gravity” by Professor Schumacher. As for this course, Professor Hooper is very good at keeping the material moving and explaining this sometimes difficult material in a way that leaves you with a solid high level understanding. If you are ready to begin a fascinating journey into Modern Physics, I recommend you start here.
Date published: 2018-10-04
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