Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works

Course No. 1280
Professor Richard Wolfson, Ph.D.
Middlebury College
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Course No. 1280
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Understand the full sweep of physics, including Newtonian mechanics, thermodynamics, optics, and quantum theory.
  • numbers Get an introduction to scores of fascinating scientific truths, such as Newton's laws of motion and Maxwell's equations.
  • numbers View fun and exciting in-studio experiments that demonstrate the principles of physics.
  • numbers Learn the fundamentals of modern physics, and grasp just how bizarre this new description of reality is.

Course Overview

Physics is the fundamental science. It explains how the universe behaves at every scale, from the subatomic to the extragalactic. It describes the most basic objects and forces and how they interact. Its laws tell us how the planets move, where light comes from, what keeps birds aloft, why a magnet attracts and also repels, and when a falling object will hit the ground, and it gives answers to countless other questions about how the world works.

Physics also gives us extraordinary power over the world, paving the way for devices from radios to GPS satellites, from steam engines to nanomaterials. It's no exaggeration to say that every invention ever conceived makes use of the principles of physics. Moreover, physics not only underlies all of the natural sciences and engineering, but also its discoveries touch on the deepest philosophical questions about the nature of reality.

Which makes physics sound like the most complicated subject there is. But it isn't. The beauty of physics is that it is simple, so simple that anyone can learn it. In 60 enthralling half-hour lectures, Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works proves that case, giving you a robust, introductory college-level course in physics. This course doesn't stint on details and always presents its subject in all of its elegance—yet it doesn't rely heavily on equations and mathematics, using nothing more advanced than high school algebra and trigonometry.

Your teacher is Professor Richard Wolfson, a noted physicist and educator at Middlebury College. Professor Wolfson is author or coauthor of a wide range of physics textbooks, including a widely used algebra-based introduction to the subject for college students. He has specially designed Physics and Our Universe to be entirely self-contained, requiring no additional resources. And for those who wish to dig deeper, he includes an extensive list of suggested readings that will enhance your understanding of basic physics.

Explore the Fundamentals of Reality

Intensively illustrated with diagrams, illustrations, animations, graphs, and other visual aids, these lectures introduce you to scores of fundamental ideas such as these:

  • Newton's laws of motion: Simple to state, these three principles demolish our intuitive sense of why things move. Following where they lead gives a unified picture of motion and force that forms the basis of classical physics.
  • Bernoulli effect: In fluids, an increase in speed means a decrease in pressure. This effect has wide application in aerodynamics and hydraulics. It explains why curve balls curve and why plaque in an artery can cause the artery to collapse.
  • Second law of thermodynamics: Echoing the British novelist and physicist C. P. Snow, Professor Wolfson calls this law about the tendency toward disorder "like a work of Shakespeare's" in its importance to an educated person's worldview.
  • Maxwell's equations: Mathematically uniting the theories of electricity and magnetism, these formulas have a startling outcome, predicting the existence of electromagnetic waves that move at the speed of light and include visible light.
  • Interference and diffraction: The wave nature of light looms large when light interacts with objects comparable in size to the light's wavelength. Interference and diffraction are two intriguing phenomena that appear at these scales.
  • Relativity and quantum theory: Introduced in the early 20th century, these revolutionary ideas not only patched cracks in classical mechanics but led to realms of physics never imagined, with limitless new horizons for research.

A Course of Breathtaking Scope

The above ideas illustrate the breathtaking scope of Physics and Our Universe, which is broken into six areas of physics plus an introductory section that take you from Isaac Newton's influential "clockwork universe" in the 17th century to the astonishing ideas of modern physics, which have overturned centuries-old views of space, time, and matter. The seven sections of the course are these:

  • Introduction: Start the course with two lectures on the universality of physics and its special languages.
  • Newtonian Mechanics: Immerse yourself in the core ideas that transformed physics into a science.
  • Oscillations, Waves, Fluids: See how Newtonian mechanics explains systems involving many particles.
  • Thermodynamics: Investigate heat and its connection to the all-important concept of energy.
  • Electricity and Magnetism: Explore electromagnetism, the dominant force on the atomic through human scales.
  • Optics: Proceed from the study of light as simple rays to phenomena involving light's wave properties.
  • Beyond Classical Physics: Review the breakthroughs in physics that began with Max Planck and Albert Einstein.

As vast as this scope is, you will not be overwhelmed, because one set of ideas in physics builds on those that precede it. Professor Wolfson constantly reviews where you've been, tying together different concepts and giving you a profound sense of how one thing leads to another in physics. Since the 17th century, physics has expanded like a densely branching tree, with productive new shoots continually forming, some growing into major limbs, but all tracing back to the sturdy foundation built by Isaac Newton and others—which is why Physics and Our Universe and most other introductory physics courses have a historical focus, charting the fascinating growth of the field.

An interesting example is Newtonian mechanics. Developments in the late 19th century showed that Newton's system breaks down at very high speeds and small scales, which is why relativity and quantum theory replaced classical physics in these realms. But the Newtonian approach is still alive and well for many applications. Newtonian mechanics will get you to the moon in a spacecraft, allow you to build a dam or a skyscraper, explain the behavior of the atmosphere, and much more. On the other hand, for objects traveling close to the speed of light or events happening in the subatomic realm, you learn that relativity and quantum theory are the powerful new tools for describing how the world works.

Seeing Is Believing

Physics would not be physics without experiments, and one of the engaging aspects of this course is the many on-screen demonstrations that Professor Wolfson performs to illustrate physical principles in action. With a showman's gifts, he conducts scores of experiments, including the following:

  • Whirling bucket: Why doesn't water fall out of a bucket when you whirl it in a vertical circle? It is commonly believed that there is a force holding the water up. But this is a relic of pre-Newtonian thinking dating to Aristotle. Learn to analyze what's really going on.
  • Bowling ball pendulum: Would you bet the safety of your skull on the conservation of energy? Watch a volunteer release a pendulum that swings across the room and hurtles back directly at her nose, which escapes harm thanks to the laws of physics.
  • Big chill: What happens when things get really cold? Professor Wolfson pours liquid nitrogen on a blown-up balloon, demonstrating dramatic changes in the volume of air in the balloon. Discover other effects produced by temperature change.
  • Energy and power: How much power is ordered up from the grid whenever you turn on an electric light? Get a visceral sense by watching a volunteer crank a generator to make a light bulb glow. Try a simple exercise to experience the power demand yourself.
  • Total internal reflection: How does a transparent medium such as glass act as an almost perfect mirror without a reflective coating? See a simple demonstration that reveals the principle behind rainbows, binoculars, and optical fibers.
  • Relativity revelation: What gave Einstein the idea for his special theory of relativity? Move a magnet through a coil, then move a coil around a magnet. You get the same effect. But in Einstein's day there were two separate explanations, which made him think ...

Math for Those Who Want to Probe Deeper

Professor Wolfson doesn't just perform memorable experiments. He introduces basic mathematics to analyze situations in detail—for example, by calculating exactly the speed a rollercoaster needs to travel to keep passengers from falling out at the top of a loop-the-loop track, or by showing that the reason high voltage is used for electrical power transmission is revealed in the simple expression that applies Ohm's law, relating current and voltage, to the formula for power.

You also see how amazing insights can be hidden in seemingly trivial mathematical details. Antimatter was first postulated when physicist Paul Dirac was faced with a square root term in an equation, and instead of throwing out one of the answers as would normally have been done, he decided to pursue the implications of two solutions.

Whenever Professor Wolfson introduces an equation, he explains what every term in the equation means and the significance of the equation for physics. You need not go any further than this to follow his presentation, but for those who wish to probe deeper he works out solutions to many problems, showing the extraordinary reach of mathematics in analyzing nature. But he stresses that physics is not about math; it's the ideas of physics that are crucial.

Understand the World in a New Way

Above all, the ideas of physics are simple. As you discover in this course, just a handful of important concepts permeate all of physics. Among them are

  • conservation of energy,
  • conservation of momentum,
  • second law of thermodynamics,
  • conservation of electric charge,
  • principle of relativity, and
  • Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

The key is not just to think in terms of these principles, but also to let go of common misconceptions, such as the idea that force causes motion; in fact, force causes change in motion. As you progress through Physics and Our Universe, you'll inevitably start to see the world differently.

"I love teaching physics and I love to see the understanding light up in people's eyes," says Professor Wolfson. "You'll see common, everyday phenomena with new understanding, like slamming on the brakes of your car and hearing the antilock brake system engage and knowing the physics of why it works; like going out on a very cold day and appreciating why your breath is condensing; like turning on your computer and understanding what's going on in those circuits. You will come to a much greater appreciation of all aspects of the world around you."

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60 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Fundamental Science
    Take a quick trip from the subatomic to the galactic realm as an introduction to physics, the science that explains physical reality at all scales. Professor Wolfson shows how physics is the fundamental science that underlies all the natural sciences. He also describes phenomena that are still beyond its explanatory power. x
  • 2
    Languages of Physics
    Understanding physics is as much about language as it is about mathematics. Begin by looking at how ordinary terms, such as theory and uncertainty, have a precise meaning in physics. Learn how fundamental units are defined. Then get a taste of the basic algebra that is used throughout the course. x
  • 3
    Describing Motion
    Motion is everywhere, at all scales. Learn the difference between distance and displacement, and between speed and velocity. Add to these the concept of acceleration, which is the rate of change of velocity, and you are ready to delve deeper into the fundamentals of motion. x
  • 4
    Falling Freely
    Use concepts from the previous lecture to analyze motion when an object is under constant acceleration due to gravity. In principle, the initial conditions in such cases allow the position of the object to be determined for any time in the future, which is the idea behind Isaac Newton's "clockwork universe." x
  • 5
    It's a 3-D World!
    Add the concept of vector to your physics toolbox. Vectors allow you to specify the magnitude and direction of a quantity such as velocity. The vector's direction can be along any axis, allowing analysis of motion in three dimensions. Then use vectors to solve several problems in projectile motion. x
  • 6
    Going in Circles
    Circular motion is accelerated motion, even if the speed is constant, because the direction, and hence the velocity, is changing. Analyze cases of uniform and non-uniform circular motion. Then close with a problem challenging you to pull out of a dive in a jet plane without blacking out or crashing. x
  • 7
    Causes of Motion
    For most people, the hardest part of learning physics is to stop thinking like Aristotle, who believed that force causes motion. It doesn't. Force causes change in motion. Learn how Galileo's realization of this principle, and Newton's later formulation of his three laws of motion, launched classical physics. x
  • 8
    Using Newton's Laws—1-D motion
    Investigate Newton's second law, which relates force, mass, and acceleration. Focus on gravity, which results in a force, called weight, that's proportional to an object's mass. Then take a ride in an elevator to see how your measured weight changes due to acceleration during ascent and descent. x
  • 9
    Action and Reaction
    According to Newton's third law, "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." Professor Wolfson has a clearer way of expressing this much-misunderstood phrase. Also, see several demonstrations of action and reaction, and learn about frictional forces through examples such as antilock brakes. x
  • 10
    Newton's Laws in 2 and 3 Dimensions
    Consider Newton's laws in cases of two and three dimensions. For example, how fast does a rollercoaster have to travel at the top of a loop to keep passengers from falling out? Is there a force pushing passengers up as the coaster reaches the top of its arc? The answer may surprise you. x
  • 11
    Work and Energy
    See how the precise definition of work leads to the concept of energy. Then explore how some forces "give back" the work done against them. These conservative forces lead to the concept of stored potential energy, which can be converted to kinetic energy. From here, develop the important idea of conservation of energy. x
  • 12
    Using Energy Conservation
    A dramatic demonstration with a bowling ball pendulum shows how conservation of energy is a principle you can depend on. Next, solve problems in complicated motion using conservation of energy as a shortcut. Close by drawing the distinction between energy and power, which are often confused. x
  • 13
    Newton realized that the same force that makes an apple fall to the ground also keeps the moon in its orbit around Earth. Explore this force, called gravity, by focusing on circular orbits. End by analyzing why an orbiting spacecraft has to decrease its kinetic energy in order to speed up. x
  • 14
    Systems of Particles
    How do you analyze a complex system in motion? One special point in the system, called the center of mass, reduces the problem to its simplest form. Also learn how a system's momentum is unchanged unless external forces act on it. Then apply the conservation of momentum principle to analyze inelastic and elastic collisions. x
  • 15
    Rotational Motion
    Turn your attention to rotational motion. Rotational analogs of acceleration, force, and mass obey a law related to Newton's second law. This leads to the concept of angular momentum and the all-important -conservation of angular momentum, which explains some surprising and seemingly counterintuitive phenomena involving rotating objects. x
  • 16
    Keeping Still
    What's the safest angle to lean a ladder against a wall to keep the ladder from slipping and falling? This is a problem in static equilibrium, which is the state in which no net force or torque (rotational force) is acting. Explore this condition and develop tools for determining whether equilibrium is stable or unstable. x
  • 17
    Back and Forth—Oscillatory Motion
    Start a new section in which you apply Newtonian mechanics to more complex motions. In this lecture, study oscillations, a universal phenomenon in systems displaced from equilibrium. A special case is simple harmonic motion, exhibited by springs, pendulums, and even molecules. x
  • 18
    Making Waves
    Investigate waves, which transport energy but not matter. When two waves coexist at the same point, they interfere, resulting in useful and surprising applications. Also examine the Doppler effect, and see what happens when an object moves through a medium faster than the wave speed in that medium. x
  • 19
    Fluid Statics—The Tip of the Iceberg
    Fluid is matter in a liquid or gaseous state. In this lecture, study the characteristics of fluids at rest. Learn why water pressure increases with depth, and air pressure decreases with height. Greater pressure with depth causes buoyancy, which applies to balloons as well as boats and icebergs. x
  • 20
    Fluid Dynamics
    Explore fluids in motion. Energy conservation requires low pressure where fluid velocity is high, and vice versa. This relation between pressure and velocity results in many practical and sometimes counterintuitive phenomena, collectively called the Bernoulli effect—explaining why baseballs curve and how airplane speedometers work. x
  • 21
    Heat and Temperature
    Beginning a new section, learn that heat is a flow of energy driven by a temperature difference. Temperature can be measured with various techniques but is most usefully quantified on the Kelvin scale. Investigate heat capacity and specific heat, and solve problems in heating a house and cooling a nuclear reactor. x
  • 22
    Heat Transfer
    Analyze heat flow, which involves three important heat-transfer mechanisms: conduction, which results from direct molecular contact; convection, involving the bulk motion of a fluid; and radiation, which transfers energy by electromagnetic waves. Study examples of heat flow in buildings and in the sun's interior. x
  • 23
    Matter and Heat
    Heat flow into a substance usually raises its temperature. But it can have other effects, including thermal expansion and changes between solid, liquid, and gaseous forms—collectively called phase changes. Investigate these phenomena, starting with an experiment in which Professor Wolfson pours liquid nitrogen onto a balloon filled with air. x
  • 24
    The Ideal Gas
    Delve into the deep link between thermodynamics, which looks at heat on the macroscopic scale, and statistical mechanics, which views it on the molecular level. Your starting point is the ideal gas law, which approximates the behavior of many gases, showing how temperature, pressure, and volume are connected by a simple formula. x
  • 25
    Heat and Work
    The first law of thermodynamics relates the internal energy of a system to the exchange of heat and mechanical work. Focus on isothermal (constant temperature) and adiabatic (no heat flow) processes, and see how they apply to diesel engines and the atmosphere. x
  • 26
    Entropy—The Second Law of Thermodynamics
    Turn to an idea that has been compared to a work of Shakespeare: the second law of thermodynamics. According to the second law, entropy, a measure of disorder, always increases in a closed system. Order can only increase at the cost of even greater entropy elsewhere in the system. x
  • 27
    Consequences of the Second Law
    The second law puts limits on the efficiency of heat engines and shows that humankind's energy use could be better planned. Learn why it makes sense to exploit low-entropy, high-quality energy for uses such as transportation, motors, and electronics, while using high-entropy random thermal energy for heating. x
  • 28
    A Charged World
    Embark on a new section of the course, devoted to electromagnetism. Begin by investigating electric charge, which is a fundamental property of matter. Coulomb's law states that the electric force depends on the product of the charges and inversely on the square of the distance between them. x
  • 29
    The Electric Field
    On of the most important ideas in physics is the field, which maps the presence and magnitude of a force at different points in space. Explore the concept of the electric field, and learn how Gauss's law describes the field lines emerging from an enclosed charge. x
  • 30
    Electric Potential
    Jolt your understanding of electric potential difference, or voltage. A volt is one joule of work or energy per coulomb of charge. Survey the characteristics of voltage—from batteries, to Van de Graaff generators, to thunderstorms, which discharge lightning across a potential difference of millions of volts. x
  • 31
    Electric Energy
    Study stored electric potential energy in fuels such as gasoline, where the molecular bonds represent an enormous amount of energy ready to be released. Also look at a ubiquitous electronic component called the capacitor, which stores an electric charge, and discover that all electric fields represent stored energy. x
  • 32
    Electric Current
    Learn the definition of the unit of electric current, called the ampere, and how Ohm's law relates the current in common conductors to the voltage across the conductor and the conductor's resistance. Apply Ohm's law to a hard-starting car, and survey tips for handling electricity safely. x
  • 33
    Electric Circuits
    All electric circuits need an energy source, such as a battery. Learn what happens inside a battery, and analyze simple circuits in series and in parallel, involving one or more resistors. When capacitors are incorporated into circuits, they store electric energy and introduce time dependence into the circuit's behavior. x
  • 34
    In this introduction to magnetism, discover that magnetic phenomena are really about electricity, since magnetism involves moving electric charge. Learn the right-hand rule for the direction of magnetic force. Also investigate how a current-carrying wire in a magnetic field is the principle behind electric motors. x
  • 35
    The Origin of Magnetism
    No matter how many times you break a magnet apart, each piece has a north and south pole. Why? Search for the origin of magnetism and learn how magnetic field lines differ from those of an electric field, and why Earth has a magnetic field. x
  • 36
    Electromagnetic Induction
    Probe one of the most fascinating phenomena in all of physics, electromagnetic induction, which shows the direct relationship between electric and magnetic fields. In a demonstration with moving magnets, see how the relative motion of a magnet and an electric conductor induces current in the conductor. x
  • 37
    Applications of Electromagnetic Induction
    Survey some of the technologies that exploit electromagnetic induction: the electric generators that supply nearly all the world's electrical energy, transformers that step voltage up or down for different uses, airport metal detectors, microphones, electric guitars, and induction stovetops, among many other applications. x
  • 38
    Magnetic Energy
    Study the phenomenon of self-inductance in a solenoid coil, finding that the magnetic field within the coil is a repository of magnetic energy, analogous to the electric energy stored in a capacitor. Close by comparing the complementary aspects of electricity and magnetism. x
  • 39
    Direct current (DC) is electric current that flows in one direction; alternating current (AC) flows back and forth. Learn how capacitors and inductors respond to AC by alternately storing and releasing energy. Combining a capacitor and inductor in a circuit provides the electrical analog of simple harmonic motion introduced in Lecture 17. x
  • 40
    Electromagnetic Waves
    Explore the remarkable insight of physicist James Clerk Maxwell in the 1860s that changing electric fields give rise to magnetic fields in the same way that changing magnetic fields produce electric fields. Together, these changing fields result in electromagnetic waves, one component of which is visible light. x
  • 41
    Reflection and Refraction
    Starting a new section of the course, discover that light often behaves as rays, which change direction at boundaries between materials. Investigate reflection and refraction, answering such questions as, why doesn't a dust mote block data on a CD? How do mirrors work? And why do diamonds sparkle? x
  • 42
    See how curving a mirror or a piece of glass bends parallel light rays to a focal point, allowing formation of images. Learn how images can be enlarged or reduced, and the difference between virtual and real images. Use your knowledge of optics to solve problems in vision correction. x
  • 43
    Wave Optics
    Returning to themes from Lecture 18 on waves, discover that when light interacts with objects comparable in size to its wavelength, then its wave nature becomes obvious. Examine interference and diffraction, and see how these effects open the door to certain investigations, while hindering others. x
  • 44
    Cracks in the Classical Picture
    Embark on the final section of the course, which covers the revolutionary theories that superseded classical physics. Why did classical physics need to be replaced? Discover that by the late 19th century, inexplicable cracks were beginning to appear in its explanatory power. x
  • 45
    Earth, Ether, Light
    Review the famous Michelson-Morley experiment, which was designed to detect the motion of Earth relative to a conjectured "ether wind" that supposedly pervaded all of space. The failure to detect any such motion revealed a deep-seated contradiction at the heart of physics. x
  • 46
    Special Relativity
    Discover the startling consequences of Einstein's principle of relativity—that the laws of physics are the same for all observers in uniform motion. One result is that the speed of light is the same for all observers, no matter what their relative motion—an idea that overturns the concept of simultaneity. x
  • 47
    Time and Space
    Einstein's special theory of relativity upends traditional notions of space and time. Solve the simple formulas that show the reality of time dilation and length contraction. Conclude by examining the twins paradox, discovering why one twin who travels to a star and then returns ages more slowly than the twin back on Earth. x
  • 48
    Space-Time and Mass-Energy
    In relativity theory, contrary to popular views, reality is what's not relative—that is, what doesn't depend on one's frame of reference. See how space and time constitute one such pair, merging into a four-dimensional space-time. Mass and energy similarly join, related by Einstein's famous E = mc2. x
  • 49
    General Relativity
    Special relativity is limited to reference frames in uniform motion. Following Einstein, make the leap to a more general theory that encompasses accelerated frames of reference and necessarily includes gravity. According to Einstein's general theory of relativity, gravity is not a force but the geometrical structure of spacetime. x
  • 50
    Introducing the Quantum
    Begin your study of the ideas that revolutionized physics at the atomic scale: quantum theory. The word "quantum" comes from Max Planck's proposal in 1900 that the atomic vibrations that produce light must be quantized—that is, they occur only with certain discrete energies. x
  • 51
    Atomic Quandaries
    Apply what you've learned so far to work out the details of Niels Bohr's model of the atom, which patches one of the cracks in classical physics from Lecture 44. Although it explains the energies of photons emitted by simple atoms, Bohr's model has serious limitations. x
  • 52
    Wave or Particle?
    In the 1920s physicists established that light and matter display both wave- and particle-like behavior. Probe the nature of this apparent contradiction and the meaning of Werner Heisenberg's famous uncertainty principle, which introduces a fundamental indeterminacy into physics. x
  • 53
    Quantum Mechanics
    In 1926 Erwin Schrödinger developed an equation that underlies much of our modern quantum-mechanical description of physical reality. Solve a simple problem with the Schrödinger equation. Then learn how the merger of quantum mechanics and special relativity led to the discovery of antimatter. x
  • 54
    Drawing on what you now know about quantum mechanics, analyze how atoms work, discovering that the electron is not a point particle but behaves like a probability cloud. Investigate the exclusion principle, and learn how quantum mechanics explains the periodic table of elements and the principle behind lasers. x
  • 55
    Molecules and Solids
    See how atoms join to make molecules and solids, and how this leads to the quantum effects that underlie semiconductor electronics. Also probe the behavior of matter in ultradense white dwarfs and neutron stars, and learn how a quantum-mechanical pairing of electrons at low temperatures produces superconductivity. x
  • 56
    The Atomic Nucleus
    In the first of two lectures on nuclear physics, study the atomic nucleus, which consists of positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons, held together by the strong nuclear force. Many combinations of protons and neutrons are unstable; such nuclei are radioactive and decay with characteristic half lives. x
  • 57
    Energy from the Nucleus
    Investigate nuclear fission, in which a heavy, unstable nucleus breaks apart; and nuclear fusion, where light nuclei are joined. In both, the released energy is millions of times greater than the energy from chemical reactions and comes from the conversion of nuclear binding energy to kinetic energy. x
  • 58
    The Particle Zoo
    By 1960 a myriad of seeming elementary particles had been discovered. Survey the standard model that restored order to this subatomic chaos, describing a universe whose fundamental particles include six quarks; the electron and two heavier cousins; elusive neutrinos; and force-carrying particles such as the photon. x
  • 59
    An Evolving Universe
    Trace the discoveries that led astronomers to conclude that the universe began some 14 billion years ago in a big bang. Detailed measurements of the cosmic microwave background and other observations point to an initial period of tremendous inflation, followed by slow expansion and an as-yet inexplicable accelerating phase. x
  • 60
    Humble Physics—What We Don't Know
    Having covered the remarkable discoveries in physics, turn to the great gap in our current knowledge, namely the nature of the dark matter and dark energy that constitute more than 95% of the universe. Close with a look at other mysteries that physicists are now working to solve. x

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Richard Wolfson

About Your Professor

Richard Wolfson, Ph.D.
Middlebury College
Dr. Richard Wolfson is the Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics at Middlebury College, where he also teaches Climate Change in Middlebury's Environmental Studies Program. He completed his undergraduate work at MIT and Swarthmore College, graduating from Swarthmore with a double major in Physics and Philosophy. He holds a master's degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Physics from...
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Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 76.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Simplifies a Complicated Topic I just received the product and have been through the first 8 of 60 lessons. The instructor is outstanding, and the accompanying study guide material is very useful. Review/ratings are only an initial reaction.
Date published: 2018-09-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I wish I had seen this when I was 18! I wish I'd had this course when I was taking Physics in high school. I could have watched again and again until the lessons sank in. You get 60 classes where Prof Wolfson talks fast, so good basic coverage. Be sure to buy the video to see the classroom experiments and follow the math. Watch in combo with Prof Gregory's excellent great course "History of Science 1700-1900" for more depth on classical physics.
Date published: 2018-08-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Review I've wanted to re-learn physics for decades, but never had the time and didn't want to be saddled in a college class. This video 60-lecture series has been an excellent way to re-learn it - well, some of it. Being only 30 hours in length it cannot possibly be completely comprehensive, although it certainly hits all the major topics. The numerous, simple experiments really help clarify and some of the concepts. I wish I had seen them 50 years ago in high school. But if you're looking for explanations of how to do the math, forget it. The videos have some math (algebra and trig) but explanations and applications are rare, and sometimes there's a lot of hand-waving as steps and explanations are passed over, mostly to fit the time frame. A good college physics book, with a solutions guide, helped me fill in the blanks and questions I had. But as a review and for beginners of what Physics is all about, this was great. The course could be greatly enhanced if they provided a workbook with problems like some of the math courses have.
Date published: 2018-08-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just what I wanted I have all Wolfsons works, and He is a good teacher. It is nearly impossible to write such a course “for all audiences”. Indeed some prior knowledge is best, at least his fine work “physics in your life” He explains enough without getting lost in wordiness. The only thing I find, and as a common denominator to most science courses, missing is how a “closed system” appears to annex the privilege of being exempt from the second law of thermodynamics. We leave that for the future.
Date published: 2018-07-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from i will let you know after next month when i get to i will let you know in a couple of months after i get to go through it i have qite a bit of things to go through at this time from conant nightingale also,. thanks
Date published: 2018-06-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from clear presentations, very clear explanations Review of Course 1280 Physics & our Universe: How it all works By Richard Wolfson Subject coverage 5 star Presentation 5 star Over all 5 star Outstanding course & presentation. It does cover all of modern physics, part 1 & 2 from motion, classical physics thru electricity & beyond. Many demonstrations that are very clear & demonstrate the principals involved. He is very enthusiastic & knowledgeable, Looks at the camera is talking to me. Highly recommend. Only negative is that it was made in 2011, now it is 2017 & not quite up to date.
Date published: 2018-04-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent but would like to see an updated version with updated information on the subject
Date published: 2018-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great total review for non professional I appreciated the entire course. The first couple sections were a review of things I studied fifty years ago but were valuable reminder of ideas that I hadn't thought a lot about since. Those who have been more involved than I might find these topics trivial. Others would surely find them enlightening. LThe post classic subjects, relativity and quantum mechanics, were things I've only read about in later years, so their discussion was very interesting.
Date published: 2018-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from clear, straight forward, builds from basics I have been enjoying this class since I bought it. clear examples and straightforward math.
Date published: 2017-12-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Aristotle to Dark Matter: A Fascinating Trip As a former student back in the dark ages of physics and math but never was a professional in either, I took this course to refresh, review and level-set myself as to new developments that I have only read about briefly or missed completely. This is the second course I have taken from Professor Wolfson, the other being “Earth’s Changing Climate”. Although his course on climate change was specific to one topic and therefore confined to 12 lectures, here he attempts to take on all of physics in 60, 30-minute lectures. Amazingly he succeeds. Dr. Wolfson frequently spends some time on historical background, setting the stage for what comes later (Aristotle and Democritus, being two examples). He uses the first couple of lectures to define some terms, show us where he plans to go and gives us his expectations of the knowledge that will enable us to learn easily. Really nothing much more that high school algebra and trig, but if I had a TC course for every time Professor Wolfson mentions calculus, I’d never have to purchase another course. Not unsurprisingly the meat of the course begins with Newtonian mechanics, progressing through fluids, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, optics and what can be termed “modern physics”. Quite a task which necessitates a reasonably rapid delivery. To be sure he takes plenty of time out for demonstrations, usually before going to a big screen (modern equivalent of a blackboard) to mathematically prove (sometimes) or strongly indicate why what he has been demonstrating and discussing is true. Some reviewers have mentioned that especially in the math he goes a bit too fast. As my math is a bit rusty I often hit pause to consider the algebraic steps (and especially to fill in the steps he compacts) and for those who are do not have a background in some of the standard symbols, it might take a few more pauses, but really there is nothing presented that is beyond the scope of a high school senior or college freshman. Dr. Wolfson has made a clear decision to present the most difficult topics without the aid of basic calculus, analytic geometry, or more advanced mathematics. In this he succeeds, something that I think very difficult. In many places he hints at differential or integral calculus concepts without going into the math, for example gives a brief visual demonstration of getting the area under a curve without ever mentioning integration or setting limits. I would have liked a bit more rigor in some areas, but I also realize that including higher math would limit the TC audience and probably require 72 lectures, so I am not at all put off. In the end, I am absolutely astounded at how much information, backed up be basic math he was able to present in a logical, coherent manner, including demonstrations in such a short time. Professor Wolfson seems to be tireless in his presentations, to the point that I wondered how many lectures he could record in a day. He is (as many other reviewers have mentioned) enthusiastic and devoted to helping students learn as much about how the universe works as is possible. And just as we begin to think that we know a lot, he brings us up short in the last two lecturers, as he presents how much everyone does not know. It is also nice to know that some of the concepts discussed have been discovered since the course was recorded (e.g. Einstein’s’ predications of “gravitational waves” and the Higgs Boson). I am grateful for how much Professor Wolfson helped me remember what I had known and how many more new ideas he presented for my consideration. Kudos to TTC and Dr. Wolfson.
Date published: 2017-08-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from EPIC! This represents a heroic effort to record a course in, roughly first year university, physics intended not for an auditorium full of freshers but…for the audience of the Great Courses. We have to be thankful for the fact that the production of such a conventional classic did not represent an undue business risk for the Teaching Company. In turn, this is testimony to the quality and sophistication of the audience of the Great Courses: the audience are really serious about life-long learning as distinct from merely watching documentaries on topics at the frontiers of human knowledge, etc. Besides, young people, aspiring natural scientists, engineers and mathematicians might represent a buoyant market segment for these DVDs…. The mammoth series of lectures is to be watched again and again and section by section (mechanics, optics, heat, electromagnetism, etc., etc.). Professor Wolfson’s teaching is very meticulous, highly structured and disciplined and is pervaded by great concern—it’s almost palpable—about how to make the viewer understand. There aren’t any pauses, hiatuses, slack or fatigue. Wolfson is tireless, equally energetic and equally enthusiastic in every one of the 60 episodes in this series, he is never bored and never boring. Numerous new ideas are introduced from scratch really and illustrated by a plethora of demonstrations, quite an organizational feat. The lectures are never unambitious, still they never seem unrealistic or overly demanding either. Nevertheless, the pressure of time makes itself felt in virtually every lecture. Some sub-topics are merely presented, there is no time to give a full explanation. Above I have claimed that Wolfson’s course is suitable for freshers, however, one could imagine educational systems (including, I would guess, in the US) where this course would pass as high-school level, while a more advanced and more mathematical treatment would be reserved for first year university. Indeed, I would have enjoyed more math, yet can understand that this is not always a popular idea. Some math is used, and derivations are carried out by Prof. Wolfson. Simple problems are solved without taking-up much time really—high school or first-year university physics is unteachable without solving problems, solving exercises all the time is dreary though, so Wolfson strikes the right balance, devoting a tiny morsel of time to working out problems. Could there have been a better way of giving such a course? Prof. Wolfson is again the one to provide the answer. I have watched some of his other courses too. Thus I realized that, on occasion, there is, in his other courses, more time available to expand on a particular issue and to provide an even deeper and complete explanation. For example, in his course on Modern Physics he provides a more satisfying exposition of elementary cosmology, how the Universe was created and how it subsequently evolved. Wolfson’s presentation in Modern Physics is more extensive and detailed than the appetizer served in the course under review (in actual fact, it is more analytical and systematic than Sean Carroll’s presentation in Dark Matter, Dark Energy!). Wolfson’s course on Physics in our Life performs a similar function of providing relatively more plentiful time to revisit topics (almost exclusively in classical physics) and shed additional light. The same might hold for Wolfson’s Modern Electronics but I haven’t managed to watch these latter DVDs as yet. Doubtless, the next stage after viewing Wolfson courses is to get oneself one of those modern glossy textbooks, several kilograms in mass, and immerse oneself in private study. There’s no escaping the textbook for one who wants to learn physics.
Date published: 2017-08-24
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Unexpected Format I was hoping to keep my educational background sharp (mathematics, science, physical education) and focus on my life-long hobby of music (fret, percussion, and keyboard instruments). Unfortunately, your lecture formats of video and podcasts are not my preferred learning styles. The physics instructor is informational and enthusiastic, but, again, it's his show (sage on the stage). I would, however, recommend this format for retired seniors who expect this type of pedagogical delivery.
Date published: 2017-08-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from always need lessons to back up Science Channel! received in timely fashion and all of these are shared with grand kids. Job of us old folks before we leave this Earth is to pass on learning!
Date published: 2017-07-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent presentation The instructor is very knowledgable and as an expert in his field, presents a understandable and detailed subject.
Date published: 2017-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 5 Courses Looking forward to spend the time watcingh these ordered courses
Date published: 2017-04-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well structured physics lectures The lectures given are easy to relate to without prior study of the subject matter. The quality of the presenter is demonstrated over and over in the course as the subjects are given quick foundation reviews to help provide a total understanding of information.
Date published: 2017-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from To the point I am not new to Algebra but wanted a refresher. To be honest I also wanted to observe the method of teaching. I think this is really well done. I would assume anyone with basic math skills and a desire to learn would find this course extremely helpful. I appreciate the time taken to make these lessons and I'm grateful all these courses are available.
Date published: 2017-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good value Very good presentation by lecturer, very clear. Great value!
Date published: 2017-01-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from No Excitement at all Physics is not a course that can simply be talked about. I expected the course to include much more than one person standing in a family room talking to me about physics.
Date published: 2017-01-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absolute masterpiece I think the best way to sum up this course is that it's the launching point for all other Physics classes that follow. It is so comprehensive and interesting that I often had to re-watch classes 2-3x simply to absorb it all. Here are a few points to add to what's already been said here: - Yes it's math intensive but I wouldn't let that scare you off. Though the math is challenging, it's a lot of "proofs" of concepts. If you can grasp the concept, you can understand the math at a high level without getting bogged down in the weeds. - It's not enough. To think that you can cover relativity or quantum in a few short classes is insane. Prof. Wolfson does a masterful job of doing what he can in the 30 minutes/class he's given but you will be longing for more at the end. - If you're not a note taker you will be. As stated, the classes are JAMMED with information. Even a single sentence might send you off on a 2 hour wild goose chase around the web (this happened to me with the concept of quantum tunneling). - Hang in there. I found the first half of the course material to be a bit of a slog. Like a good movie, you're building the foundation for what's to come but it's hard not to look at "time and space" when you're on "causes of motion" and not yearn for what's to come. It's worth the wait! - The course isn't dated. This was one of my concerns going in but, I found the material to be very up to date and still relevant, with some exceptions (e.g., Higgs) I took both high school and college-level physics classes and none of those classes compares to what you will get out of this course. It is just so incredibly comprehensive and well taught. I hope this review helps you make your decision!
Date published: 2016-12-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Overwhelming I am only on the second disc at this point. It is quite more than I remember from high school and college physics. Probably because there's been a lot more learned since I was in school. It can be a bit overwhelming, but thank goodness there is printed material to follow along with the video. The professor is very complete and apparently has a lot of ground to cover. The experiments are easy to follow and illustrate the topics well. The formulas can be a little difficult and I find myself having to rewind frequently so I can see them once again and let them sink in. I can see where I will probably have to review the entire course again, but that's fine because this will help me better understand all the information.
Date published: 2016-10-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Physis Review I bought this course as a review of physics. There have been many changes since I left school and this is a good refresher as well as update for general physics. I like that there is a nice big course book that comes with the DVD set - I can't imagine this as an audio only course - but do wish they had the solutions to the book problems somewhere.
Date published: 2016-10-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just what I was looking for Prof Wolfson has a clear presentation of the material. I was not looking to become a physicist but wanted to explore the concepts. The Prof keeps his audience in mind while presenting. He takes the time to explain the technical terms that he uses and presents to convey the information instead of trying to impress with his knowledge. Overall he very understandable. I have come to appreciate the DVD courses since they give me a chance to clarify any points that I did not understand. I do not care about a degree, what I am shooting for is getting the information.
Date published: 2016-09-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I absolutely love this class. I'm only 6 lessons into it and I've already learned so much!!!!
Date published: 2016-09-17
Rated 1 out of 5 by from the sound is unbearable. screaming music. why, oh why, is there always screaming loud music behind the video? its painful and makes understanding the speaker absolutely impossible. This company has always had problems with sound , in one way or another, and doesn't seem to care.
Date published: 2016-09-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not a good first presentation Somewhat surprisingly for a highly experienced teacher at an institution (Middlebury) that puts a strong emphasis on undergraduate education, Prof. Wolfson speaks MUCH too quickly for his presentation to be easily followed. This set of lectures would, I think, be an excellent review of the material for someone who has already studied it. There's a feeling of someone who's just trying to cram too much into too short a time. If you are approaching this subject for the first time, I would think that at very least you would need to obtain, and work carefully through, the complete transcript of the lectures. One additional feature that I found extremely annoying. When new points being made appear on the screen, there is a kind of soft bell rung in the background, as though some kind of added aural signal needed to be given. This eventually drove me crazy; I grew to dread it.
Date published: 2016-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Best Exposition of All Physics Essentials An excellent introduction to Physics ("nature" in Greek) and among the 3 top courses for self-study of the essential basic concepts of science I have followed. The scope is extensive. And, no, maths does not constitute a roadblock - all that is required is a basic knowledge of trigonometry. (the sine and cosine functions). The difficulty mentioned by others regarding maths is due to the fact that some basic equations require a sequence up 5 - 10 simple steps and yes although the math level is simple, following the sequence requires attention. Instead of college courses where the physics is rolled up with calculus all at once, Prof. Wolfson clearly explains the key essential points of physics without the calculus which often seems to obscure the physics picture. By insisting on fundamental key points and breaking down each equation to show what each term means, the equations become a short-hand summary instead of remaining cryptic road signs written in a foreign language with foreign characters. (OK, Calculus has to be mentioned often in Lecture 40 and the math seems to get intimidating near the end of the course, in the more advanced lecture 54 which derives the wave equation for the hydrogen atom). Although math is kept to the strict minimum, this course is absolutely not a dumbed-down casual listening entertainment product. Even after I graduated from engineering school, this course proved to be a useful refresher as Prof. Wolfson exposes some small but essential detail I had missed at university. What is required is a commitment to learn. To get the full rewards this course offers, it is necessary to listen seriously. Seriously means taking notes. It will often by necessary to pause, go back a bit and listen again. Expect to spend more time on a lecture than its 30 minute run time. Through the whole set of lectures, Prof. Wolfson successfully manages to motivate the material covered with examples showing how to size up every day situations, from how much oil is required to heat a home up to important challenges for the global use (and waste) of energy. No ivory tower of high-level knowledge - the knowledge is constantly reconnected with practical every day use of the knowledge. Even though the math is simple, it is a quantitative course. Young students pondering future career choices could use this course to determine if the technical field is a viable option. The first 10 or so lectures are easy enough and should they prove to be insurmountable, then other career options should be considered. Again, perseverance is the key. The pace begins softly until lecture 10 is reached. Then the pace begins to pick up somewhat, moving from every day mechanics to more abstract concepts of energy. Again, practical problems are worked out with simple math to give a real life meaning to the concept. An additional bonus is developing the valuable skill of self-reliance to learn on your own. For college, lectures up to 11 would already provide a major head start. Having already absorbed the fundamentals of physics, it will be considerably easier to mix physics with higher-level calculus to undertaken formal training under an enforced schedule. A college teacher could also use this course for pointers on better teaching. Let's face it, not all teachers are as gifted as Prof. Wolfson - some cannot even tell the difference between teaching and mere telling. I did graduate, in spite of a few teacher imitations. A teacher's influence on the students extends far longer than the course duration - over an entire generation. The pace accelerates at lectures 36 to 40 dealing with the electromagnetic field. Prof. Wolfon does an absolutely stellar job at explaining this more difficult subject. Then the pace drops back in the next lectures dealing with optics, back to mundane, every day physics. Prof. Wolfson successfully manages to motivate the material by showing how optics can be exploited to explain how a CD-ROM reader can still work in spite of specs of dust which are considerably bigger than the pits engraved in the CD to record music or data. Lectures 47 and 48 on Special Relativity are particularly amazing - the math is at its strict minimum: calculating the long side of a right-angled triangle is all that is required to arrive at the famous E = mc2 equation. The challenge was to carefully listen to some sentences to absorb the language. At first hearing, some sound downright bizarre but they end up making sense. The dive into the atom is also easy to follow. The lectures on quantum mechanics are challenging because the whole topic at the atomic level is so far away from human everyday life experience - the statements sound downright bizarre and this is where it is really required to rewind and listen again. One criticism to make is that the lectures on electromagnetism do not explain properly explain what a closed surface is. The same way a closed line starts and ends at the same point, defines a surface. The closed surface, like a ping pong ball's extremely thin outer shell, defines a volume inside and there is no entering inside from the outside without piercing the surface. (This could be remedied by adding a small page in the DVD case.also explaining how the direction of the path along the a closed curve allows to define a vector used to account for the direction of a surface within an electric field). I also wish that the effects of black body radiation and radiation pressure had been worked out as challenge problems. I would have liked to see a summary description of what were the steps taken by Newton starting from Kepler's idea of elliptical orbits arriving to the development of calculus.
Date published: 2016-08-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absolutely Brilliant This is the first Great Course I have completed and can say I thoroughly enjoyed it. The course content is fantastic; I can't believe Professor Wolfson managed to essentially cover all the foundations of physics in a 60 lecture series whilst doing justice to all the topics he touched. Being a fan of physics, I have read many books, articles and seen lots of physics videos and was delighted to see pretty much everything I have encountered over the years was at least mentioned if not completely covered in the course. Professor Wolfson himself is a brilliant teacher. He doesn't sound scripted, is passionate in his teaching and uses a perfect mix of standard lecturing, mathematics and experiments to keep you engaged as a student at all times. The challenges and summaries are a nice adjunct as well. Overall, an unmissable course for all those interested in physics. I am extremely impressed and will definitely be purchasing more of Professor Wolfson's courses as well as other Great Courses. However, it should be noted that the course, as Professor Wolfson makes very clear, is quite quantitative. One other reviewer noted that he takes you as far into the world of physics as is possible with high school maths; I couldn't agree more. However, this does mean maths does feature throughout the course where it is useful. For anyone who struggles with the maths (which I sometimes did), Professor Wolfson is so clear in his explanations that you can still follow the concepts even if you aren't following the maths. For anyone who may find that they are struggling with the course, I'd suggest using other sources to clear up concepts before moving on. I found myself doing that on occasion. Explanatory online videos are extremely useful for this.
Date published: 2016-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I liked very much electromagnetism & relativity Wow, this is indeed a great course. I originally acquired this course for my daughter for preparation for science graduate school. However, she change her mind. So, I started taking the lectures of this course as a refreshment. When I studied Physics at the university level, I did not have the opportunity to take lectures on electromagnetism and relativity. This course gave me a beautiful perspective for understanding these topics. Professor Wolfson is a great teacher his practical demonstrations are spectacular. His work for this course was monumental. To me this is the best course on General Physics that I have ever taken.
Date published: 2016-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Best of the Best Having just completed Professor Wolfson's 60 lecture course I am left with wanting a sequel. This Great Course is not for everyone but if you have had some science and math either at AP high school or college I would highly recommend this one. Be prepared to frequently use the pause and re-wind feature on your DVD player as Professor Wolfson covers what amounts to 90 minutes of material in 30 minute segments . I especially enjoyed the challenges at the end of most lectures. Most of them are fair with a few requiring some abstract algebraic tricks that would be difficult to employ unless you had recently completed an algebra II course The challenges do force one . to re-play all or part of the lecture pertaining to the challenge material which reinforces the retention of key points that were made. I would suggest that to keep the course current Great Courses somehow update the sections on gravitational waves and the Higgs boson either by dubbing over the video or adding the latest findings on these two events to the course outline. In conclusion, if you are contemplating majoring in physics or are retired and looking for a challenge to keep your mind sharp as was my goal and gain a better appreciation of what makes the universe tick this is a Great Course for you.
Date published: 2016-04-30
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