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Black Holes Explained

Black Holes Explained

Professor Alex Filippenko, Ph.D.
University of California, Berkeley

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Black Holes Explained

Course No. 1841
Professor Alex Filippenko, Ph.D.
University of California, Berkeley
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Course No. 1841
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Course Overview

Imagine a region in space where the force of gravity is so strong that nothing—not even light—can escape. A region with physical conditions so extreme that they have not yet been reproduced in any terrestrial laboratory. A region so dense that an object as tiny as a walnut would have the same mass as our entire planet.

This phenomenon—first formed in the equations of Einstein and popularized in the stories of science-fiction authors—is a black hole: one of the most exotic, mind-boggling, and profound subjects in astrophysics.

Black holes are at the heart of some of the most intriguing phenomena in the universe. Not only that, they are ideal gateways to fundamental and cutting-edge concepts in astronomy, including the following:

  • General relativity: Einstein's general theory of relativity provides the framework for understanding black holes, in which the warping of both space and time is so great that they are effectively cut off from the rest of the universe.
  • Monsters at the heart of galaxies: Detailed studies of the centers of galaxies reveal that supermassive black holes are common, with masses of millions to billions of suns. Nearly every large galaxy has one.
  • Wormholes: According to general relativity, black holes may be connected to passages through space-time known as wormholes. The jury is still out on whether they exist and whether they would allow time travel and trips to other universes.
  • Is the universe like a hologram? Quantum theory suggests that information is not lost inside a black hole but instead is encoded around it like a hologram—a phenomenon that may characterize the universe as a whole!

Indeed, the idea that the universe itself has properties similar to black holes shows that these objects play a pivotal role at all scales: from the truly cosmic to the subatomic realm, where theory suggests the existence of mini-black holes that may have been created in the aftermath of the big bang and that could be produced in the latest generation of particle accelerators.

Nearly everyone has heard of black holes, but few people outside of complex scientific fields understand their true nature and their implications for our universe. Black Holes Explained finally makes this awe-inspiring cosmological subject graspable, with 12 lavishly illustrated lectures by veteran Great Courses Professor Alex Filippenko, a distinguished astronomer and award-winning teacher at the University of California, Berkeley.

Travel into a Black Hole

No movie, novel, or other fictional treatment of black holes matches Professor Filippenko's absorbing presentation of the actual science behind these amazing objects. In Lectures 8 and 9 he uses computer simulations created by fellow astronomers to conduct a virtual tour around and into a supermassive black hole, and then through a wormhole to another universe. Among the features you investigate are these:

  • Einstein ring: As you approach a black hole, the starlight behind it spectacularly bends in a kaleidoscopic effect called gravitational lensing. This phenomenon can produce a series of halos known as Einstein rings.
  • Photon sphere: Closer to a black hole, you come to a zone where an object must orbit at the speed of light to avoid falling in. Here, light can move in circular orbits and, in principle, you can look forward and see the back of your head.
  • Event horizon: Continuing your plunge, you reach a boundary called the event horizon. Once you cross it, you can't return. Anyone watching from outside sees time come to a standstill, as you appear to stop and motionlessly fade from view.
  • Singularity: After crossing the event horizon, you are only a minute away from the singularity, the hypothetical point of infinite density. Powerful tidal forces squeeze and stretch your body, until you are ultimately crushed to oblivion.

Mission Invisible

Recently elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Filippenko has devoted much of his research career to black holes, discovering some of the best evidence for the existence of stellar-mass black holes in the Milky Way Galaxy, and participating in studies of supermassive black holes using the Hubble Space Telescope.

Drawing on extensive graphics, including hundreds of stunning astronomical images, Dr. Filippenko shows how scientists have been able to read the evidence to surmise a great deal about objects that are inherently invisible. Among the most dramatic clues are high-energy beams of radiation that were first detected by spy satellites in the 1960s. These powerful "gamma-ray bursts" were long a mystery, but they are now thought to be the dying gasps of massive stars in distant galaxies, collapsing to form black holes.

Dr. Filippenko also dispels several myths about black holes, such as that they are "cosmic vacuum cleaners," drawing in matter from afar with irresistible force. In fact, if the sun were compressed to form a black hole, there would be no effect on the orbits of the planets. Similarly, fears that mini-black holes created by particle accelerators will grow and devour the Earth have no basis in physics.

In popular usage, a black hole is a place of utter emptiness. But in this engaging course, you learn about how there is much more to them than that. Astronomers have brought black holes out of the shadows to reveal that they are a widespread and vital phenomenon in the universe with unexpected implications for all scales of reality. Black holes are intriguingly counterintuitive, gratifyingly comprehensible, and surprisingly relevant to our overall understanding of the universe—as you will discover in Black Holes Explained.

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12 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2009
  • 1
    A General Introduction to Black Holes
    Widely featured in novels, movies, and other media, black holes are not just entertaining plot devices, they're real. Learn how the idea of black holes was proposed more than two centuries ago, and how more recently Einstein's general theory of relativity gave a firm theoretical basis for them. x
  • 2
    The Violent Deaths of Massive Stars
    Discover how black holes can form from stars that are much more massive than the sun. After exhausting their nuclear fuel, these behemoths end in a colossal explosion called a supernova, leaving behind a superdense neutron star, or in some cases something even denser: a black hole. x
  • 3
    Gamma-Ray Bursts—The Birth of Black Holes
    Trace the story of gamma-ray bursts. Long a mystery, these intense eruptions of high-energy radiation from random spots in the sky are now thought to be associated with the formation of black holes in distant galaxies. Their visibility from so far away means they are truly titanic explosions. x
  • 4
    Searching for Stellar-Mass Black Holes
    If black holes emit no light, how are they detected? Investigate the different clues that establish strong evidence for black holes. For example, a star orbiting an unseen object that exceeds the 3-solar-mass limit for neutron stars is probably circling a black hole. x
  • 5
    Monster of the Milky Way and Other Galaxies
    This lecture presents the most compelling evidence to date for black holes—found in the core of most galaxies. There, stars and gas clouds typically orbit at high speeds, signaling the presence of a central, supermassive black hole, millions to billions of times the mass of the sun. x
  • 6
    Quasars—Feasting Supermassive Black Holes
    Quasars are another astronomical mystery explained by black holes. Explore the history of these star-like objects that long baffled astronomers, until observers realized they were seeing matter falling into supermassive black holes during the early era of galaxy formation. x
  • 7
    Gravitational Waves—Ripples in Space-Time
    Gravity waves are an unexplored new window for studies of black holes. Learn how these hard-to-detect vibrations are the predicted ripples in the fabric of space-time that should result from violent phenomena such as the merging of two black holes. x
  • 8
    The Wildest Ride in the Universe
    What happens if you fall into a black hole? Take a wild ride into the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy with a vivid computer simulation showing the strange effects you would experience before being crushed to incredible density. x
  • 9
    Shortcuts through the Universe and Beyond?
    Mathematically, black holes seem to connect our universe with others through a gateway called an Einstein-Rosen bridge—nicknamed a wormhole by physicist John Wheeler, who also coined the term black hole. See a computer simulation of what passage through a wormhole would be like. x
  • 10
    Stephen Hawking and Black Hole Evaporation
    Learn why black holes may not be completely black. In 1975, physicist Stephen Hawking showed that they can evaporate via a quantum tunneling process, giving off a slow trickle of quantum particles before eventually ending in an explosion of gamma rays. x
  • 11
    Black Holes and the Holographic Universe
    The "no-hair" theorem says that black holes are utterly simple and preserve almost no information about what went into them. Discover why some physicists believe that the supposedly lost information is contained just outside the black hole in a form that resembles a hologram—and that the universe as a whole may display the same property. x
  • 12
    Black Holes and the Large Hadron Collider
    Professor Filippenko closes by looking at the possibility that a new particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider will produce microscopic black holes. Discover why there is no danger that they will devour the Earth, and why there is no risk from any known black holes in space. x

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Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 83-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 83-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Timeline

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Your professor

Alex Filippenko

About Your Professor

Alex Filippenko, Ph.D.
University of California, Berkeley
Dr. Alex Filippenko is Professor of Astronomy and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Physical Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his B.A. in Physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his Ph.D. in Astronomy from the California Institute of Technology. Dr. Filippenko's research accomplishments, documented in more than 500 scientific publications and 600...
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Rated 4.7 out of 5 by 89 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by True to Its Title The course title is Black Holes Explained and the lectures deliver that. Black Holes Explained provides a conceptual understanding of how black holes likely form, what their properties are and how they interact with the rest of the cosmos. The student should keep in mind that much of the explanation is based on theoretical projections not all of which have been or may ever be verified with data. Dr. Filippenko does point this out, but the student should take note. The course is largely conceptual with few equations or mathematics. This will appeal to the layperson. But the conceptual discussion has sufficient depth that those with a scientific bent will also gain much from this course. The bibliography and websites contained in the course guide provide opportunity for the student to explore beyond the lectures to whatever depth they seek. Dr. Filippenko is a very good lecturer. He is enthusiastic, energetic and knowledgeable. He clearly enjoys being a bit of a showman. He goes to great lengths to try to simplify his explanations using analogies a lay person can relate to. He appropriately uses voice inflection and body language to emphasize points. He cracks a lot of corny jokes, a few of which are funny, but many seemed aimed at high school or even junior high students. He tends to overuse popular cartoons and other such caricatures of black holes but in between explanations of demanding concepts these diversions give one's mind a break. He also goes to great lengths at multiple times to explain why we are in no real danger from black holes swallowing us up; not something that has kept me up at night but he seems to think people are concerned about this. I have a physics (not astrophysics) background yet I found many things in this course that were new and fascinating. For example, short duration Gamma Ray Burst signify the birth of a black hole, neutron stars must exceed 3 solar masses to collapse to a black hole, black holes at the center of galaxies are supermassive and the size of the "bulge" in a galaxy's center is proportional to the black hole mass, quasars only exist in the far reaches of the universe and thus are phenomena from the early universe, the merger of black holes and/or neutron stars with themselves or with each other should result in gravitation waves providing insight to quantum gravity, and Hawking radiation results when particle pairs separate at an event horizon leading ultimately to the evaporation of the black hole. The debate between Leonard Susskind (and others) and Stephen Hawking about whether or not information is lost when particles enter a black hole is fascinating. Perhaps its not quite up there with the Bohr-Einstein debates in terms of drama and impact, but it is another example of the philosophical disagreements in theoretical physics. Lectures 9, 10, and 11 which highlight the Susskind-Hawking debates are technically and conceptually the most challenging but Dr. Fillipenko makes them understandable. The accompanying course guide is excellent. The lecture summaries capture most of the key points from the lectures. The glossary and bibliography/websites are extensive. The timeline of discovery and the biographical notes of the principal scientists both add value to the guide. For those of us who are more mathematically inclined, a relevant equations to each lecture section, ala in Dr. Whittle's Cosmology course, would have been a welcome, nice to have, addition. Other than a bit of an overdose of cornball jokes and popular culture items, my only criticism of this 2009 course is that a few things are dated. For example, while Lecture 8, "The Wildest Ride" spent an entire lecture explaining what would happen should we fall in a black hole i.e. "spaghettification". Since then a new, equally plausible theory has emerged that proposes that we would incinerate at the event horizon as we fell into the hole. Neither scenario is cheery. The other, very recent (March 2014), news is that the BICEP-2 detector in Antarctica does seem to have detected gravitation waves, though this awaits confirmation. All in all, I would highly recommend this course to anyone interested in learning about black holes, whether one's background is in science or not. June 17, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Very Satisfying in both Depth & Absorbability Having taken many other Learning Company courses on particle physics, astrophysics, string theory and so on, I thought little of the value of such a piece of fluff. HOWEVER, my arrogance was soon put in its place as the lectures turned in more gravitas than expected (pun intended). In spite of his corny but endearing sense of humor, Professor Filippenko is the real deal.. An acknowledged world-class driving force behind this topic. Now, my experience tells me, there could have been much arcane math and formulaic treatment of the subject material. Again, HOWEVER, the material is delivered apace with easily understood concept diagrams and computer-aided graphics. A good course for anyone over the age of twelve. January 5, 2017
Rated 4 out of 5 by Interesting, but expect a headache Provides a detailed look at black holes and allows you to get a sense of the scale of them, but can be quite dense (no pun intended) at times. He uses terms that can be difficult to recall, but this will not detract from the casual viewer's experience much. People more familiar with these subjects will also learn a lot as well, as he gives detailed looks at how black holes can be detected and the influence they have on their environment. Overall I would recommend the course to both those with a casual and serious interest in black holes, as long as you are willing to put in a certain amount of effort to keep up with the sometimes complicated material. October 28, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Everything you ever wanted to know Just on the basis of this short lecture course I am not led to subscribe to the view expounded by some reviewers that Professor Filippenko is the foremost teacher in physics-related subjects. My assessment is that, no doubt, he is a first rate teacher yet not necessarily the best. I would, however, pronounce him a wizard of animations. Naturally, to reach a more complete evaluation, I have to watch his 96 Astronomy lectures which I will do soon hopefully. The present lectures on black holes are very informative, a lot is conveyed to the viewer, conceivably one could get away with only elementary prior knowledge of physics (better be familiar with the Doppler effect, wave interference and the idea of entropy though!) and no knowledge of cosmology is required. Still, what is the point of taking an interest exclusively in black holes and in no other astronomical object! However, to attempt this course one should have been following for some years the science pages of a daily newspaper, e.g., Filippenko mentions, one must say without it really being crucial for his argument, the concept of a “wave function”. I didn’t find Filippenko’s explanations complete or particularly thorough or patient but rather rushed and appealing to the viewer’s “common sense” all too often . Perhaps the explanations couldn’t be more satisfying without making the lecture series too complicated or much longer. Still, I feel I cannot give full marks for professor presentation. Here follows a contradiction—seriously, it is not really a contradiction: Prof. Filippenko has superb TV-presenter skills, he’s obviously a great guy, a truly jovial fellow, he can make one laugh though he cannot always make one understand! It is admirable, nevertheless, that a compact, specialized course, comprehensively covering numerous different aspects of a single topic, providing a list of highly informative “conclusions” even if the “inference”, the logical steps, that lead to these conclusions cannot be analyzed or even exhibited satisfactorily, we are quite fortunate that the Great Courses can come up with such a lecture series presented by a world authority. Of course, anybody marketing such a course is not taking a risk, since the topic is so popular… It is Filippenko’s achievement that the lectures are rich, overflowing with bits of knowledge which I suspect are not elementary but quite advanced in nature and still remain generally comprehensible while not becoming trivial, utterly naïve or outright vulgar. A colossal amount of information is conveyed…in a jocular mood! It is also his achievement that the course is genuinely stand-alone, without requiring continuous cross-references to other outside material. P.S. It was much better when I watched it a second time. I could understand almost everything, that is to say excepting lectures 8-11, which I still found quite abstruse. At least, even in relation to these latter lectures, I got some foggy idea of what the issues are albeit without being able to appreciate exactly how the issues have been resolved. October 9, 2016
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