A Visual Guide to the Universe with the Smithsonian

In partnership with
Professor David M. Meyer, Ph.D.
Northwestern University
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Course No. 1893
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Course Overview

For the first time in human history, we can see the full splendor and mystery of the universe, thanks to instruments on scores of planetary probes and observatories that have been launched into space since the 1990s.

From Saturn’s rings to the heart of the Milky Way, and from colliding galaxies to cataclysmic gamma-ray bursts at the edges of visible space, some of the most spectacular sights in the cosmos are now as easy to see as the stars above. Many of these cosmic phenomena occur at wavelengths of light that are beyond the range of human vision and can only be detected by special instruments in space.

The dazzling new images are not just a data bonanza for scientists; they have entered popular culture, appearing in art galleries and coffee-table books, as well as on posters, T-shirts, and even postage stamps. Above all, this stunning archive is providing a new perspective on our dynamic universe, including views such as these:

  • Solar magnetic storms: The Solar Dynamics Observatory has recorded dramatic time-lapse footage of the sun in ultraviolet light, including a huge explosion of material from the solar atmosphere, with debris smashing back into the sun’s seething outer layer.
  • Runaway star: A normal-looking nearby star is in fact racing through space more than 20 times faster than a rifle bullet. The action shows up in an infrared view, which beautifully reveals a shock wave of interstellar gas in front of the star, like the bow wave on a speedboat.
  • Galactic crash scene: When viewed in wavelengths beyond human vision, Andromeda, the nearest large galaxy to our own, displays evidence of having been struck 200 million years ago by a dwarf galaxy—just as Andromeda will one day collide with our Milky Way.

  • Dark matter revealed: Most of the matter in the universe doesn't emit, absorb, or scatter light at any wavelength. The most convincing proof that this dark matter must exist shows up in combined X-ray and visible light images of distant colliding galaxy clusters.

And that’s only the beginning. Our instruments in space have prospected for water and life on Mars, detected thousands of possible planets orbiting other stars, mapped superheated matter swirling into gigantic black holes, and deciphered the all-pervasive echo of the big bang, which is the key to understanding the large-scale structure of the universe.

The fantastic scientific story behind these remarkable images is yours in A Visual Guide to the Universe, produced in partnership with the Smithsonian—one of the world’s most storied and exceptional educational institutions. These 18 lavishly illustrated lectures that take you from our neighborhood of the solar system to the farthest reaches of space and time. Your guide is Professor David M. Meyer, an award-winning teacher, popular public speaker, and distinguished astronomer at Northwestern University.

Greatest Hits of Astronomy’s Golden Age

Designed for astronomy novices and practiced observers alike, A Visual Guide to the Universe covers a wide range of telling phenomena that have made our era a golden age of astronomical discovery. In selecting the images, Professor Meyer has aimed for variety and scientific significance, while also focusing on key concepts in astronomy, making this course an ideal visual tour through today’s thrilling science of the universe.

As Professor Meyer discusses different images, you learn background ideas such as the electromagnetic spectrum and the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram for charting stellar evolution. You also hear about techniques for finding extrasolar planets in the glare of faraway stars and the breakthroughs that make today’s cutting-edge space probes and observatories possible. Illuminating diagrams and animations help explain what’s going on in each image.

Meet the Explorers

Many people associate space exploration with human spaceflight. But the most productive scientific workhorses of the space age have been robotic instruments such as these:

  • Cassini probe: The first spacecraft to orbit Saturn, Cassini has been sending back high-resolution images of the ringed planet and its moons since 2004. Among the findings: The moon Enceladus has towering surface geysers spewing water ice and organic molecules into space.
  • Hubble Space Telescope: Capable of resolving objects 10 times smaller than the largest ground-based telescopes, Hubble has been revolutionizing optical astronomy for more than two decades. Its countless images include breathtaking studies of far distant galaxies.
  • Spitzer Space Telescope: Details of star birth are often hidden from optical view inside dark clouds of interstellar dust. But the process is crystal clear in infrared, which Spitzer is designed to detect, making it the ideal instrument for observing star and solar system formation.
  • Chandra X-Ray Observatory: Extremely energetic processes in the universe produce X-rays, which are very difficult to focus. Chandra does just that, allowing it to image the violent events connected with black holes and other phenomena that heat gas to extreme temperatures.

Among your many adventures, you explore the red planet with the Mars rovers, orbit an asteroid with the Dawn space probe, solve the mystery of gamma-ray bursts with the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, and take an extraordinary “baby picture” of the early universe with the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. In case after case, you use multiple instruments to view the same object at different wavelengths, learning how each portion of the electromagnetic spectrum contains clues that let you assemble a remarkably complete picture of events happening up to billions of light-years away.

Of course, the true space explorers are the astronomers and other scientists who direct the activities of these far-flung machines. Professor Meyer is one such investigator, having used space telescopes many times in his research. He speaks from experience when he describes the astounding missions—exploits that can be compared to those of Columbus, Magellan, and Lewis and Clark.

With A Visual Guide to the Universe, you have an opportunity to embark on our era’s greatest voyages of discovery, guided by Professor Meyer, the Smithsonian, and The Great Courses. Without leaving home, you’ll find the view is truly out of this world!

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18 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Probing the Cosmos from Space
    Prepare for your cosmic journey by surveying NASA’s space exploration strategy. Although human spaceflight gets the lion’s share of publicity, the greatest scientific discoveries in space are the work of planetary probes and space observatories. Learn why this approach has paid off so spectacularly. x
  • 2
    The Magnetic Beauty of the Active Sun
    Explore the sun in astonishing detail through the multispectral instruments of the Solar Dynamics Observatory. See debris from magnetic storms explode into space and then crash back into the sun. Learn how these mammoth outbursts affect Earth. x
  • 3
    Mars: Water and the Search for Life
    Discover that Mars is a water world whose surface dried up long ago and may once have supported life. Four robotic rovers have landed on Mars, including the sophisticated Curiosity rover, now crawling across the planet searching for clues connected to microbial life forms. x
  • 4
    Vesta and the Asteroid Belt
    Study fossil remains of the early solar system, preserved in the rocky debris of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Focus on one of the largest asteroids, Vesta, viewing it close up via the Dawn spacecraft. Learn how pieces of Vesta have fallen to Earth as meteorites. x
  • 5
    Saturn: The Rings of Enchantment
    Examine Saturn through the eyes of the Cassini probe, which has been orbiting the ringed planet since 2004, taking spectacular pictures of Saturn’s cloud tops, moons, and especially the enigmatic ring system. Examine competing theories for the origin of this complex circular band. x
  • 6
    The Ice Moons Europa and Enceladus
    Focus on two enigmatic ice worlds: Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Both may harbor liquid water beneath their icy crusts. Weigh the chances that life exists in these underground oceans, despite the extreme cold in the outer solar system. x
  • 7
    The Search for Other Earths
    Join the Kepler telescope in the search for other Earths. Kepler has spotted thousands of candidate planets orbiting other stars, including many that are roughly Earth-sized. Learn how planets are detected at stellar distances, and study the conditions needed to support life. x
  • 8
    The Swan Nebula
    Venture into a nearby spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, as imaged in infrared light by the Spitzer Space Telescope. See how Spitzer’s panorama of the Swan nebula reveals that spiral arms are active regions of star formation, showing up brilliantly in the infrared band. x
  • 9
    The Seven Sisters and Their Stardust Veil
    The Pleiades cluster, or Seven Sisters, is one of the most beautiful star formations in the heavens. Discover the origin of the wispy nebulae that surround these bright stars. In the process, learn how the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram is a powerful tool for estimating the ages of star clusters. x
  • 10
    Future Supernova, Eta Carinae
    Explore the imminent fate of the luminous star Eta Carinae, a ticking bomb due to explode as a supernova in the next few hundred thousand years. Study the life cycle of stars, and trace the history of Eta Carinae to mysterious events first observed in 1843. x
  • 11
    Runaway Star, Zeta Ophiuchi
    Why is the enormous star Zeta Ophiuchi careening through our galaxy at unusually high speed? Probe the mystery of this runaway star and its gorgeous shock wave, using images from the Spitzer Space Telescope and other observatories to tell a story of massive interacting stars and a likely supernova explosion. x
  • 12
    The Center of the Milky Way
    Travel to the most exotic sector of the Milky Way, the galactic center, which has a black hole four million times more massive than the sun and is orbited by hot gas and giant stars. View this violent region at multiple wavelengths using the most advanced telescopes of our day. x
  • 13
    The Andromeda Galaxy
    Investigate the nearby Andromeda galaxy, tracing its puzzling spiral arms. Use images from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer and other telescopes to gather evidence that something once crashed into Andromeda. Then chart Andromeda’s collision course with our own galaxy! x
  • 14
    Hubble's Galaxy Zoo
    Use the sharp eye of the Hubble Space Telescope to survey some of the most peculiar galaxies in the local universe. Focus on Hoag’s Object, a ring galaxy with a yellow nucleus, surrounded by a nearly perfect circle of hot blue stars. Explore competing ideas for the origin of this unique structure. x
  • 15
    The Brightest Quasar
    Travel to some of the most distant and luminous objects in the universe: quasars. Discovered in the early 1960s, these active galaxies are associated with matter-devouring supermassive black holes. Investigate the brightest and first-found quasar, called 3C 273, and learn what it reveals about the early universe. x
  • 16
    The Dark Side of the Bullet Cluster
    Investigate mounting evidence that invisible dark matter must exist. Then see how telescopes scanning the sky at different wavelengths have mapped the distribution of dark matter, notably in a collection of distant colliding galaxy clusters called the Bullet Cluster. x
  • 17
    The Cosmic Reach of Gamma-Ray Bursts
    Search for the origin of the most powerful explosions since the big bang. Known as gamma-ray bursts, these colossal beams of high-energy radiation are among our deepest views into the cosmic past. Also consider the chance that a nearby gamma-ray burst could cause a mass extinction on Earth. x
  • 18
    The Afterglow of the Big Bang
    Conclude your cosmic tour by probing the echo of creation: the faint afterglow of the big bang, which is present everywhere in space. View this signal in increasing detail provided by spacecraft, and uncover its astonishing story about the earliest epoch of our vast universe. x

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  • 146-page course synopsis
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Your professor

David M. Meyer

About Your Professor

David M. Meyer, Ph.D.
Northwestern University
Dr. David M. Meyer is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Northwestern University, where he is also Director of the Dearborn Observatory and Co-Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics. He earned his B.S. in Astrophysics from the University of Wisconsin, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles. He continued his studies as a Robert R....
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Reviews

A Visual Guide to the Universe with the Smithsonian is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 62.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from In depth Astronomy, but not good teacher Lots of interesting topics in Astronomy, but too often I am left with the feeling that I dont really underdtand. And the professor makes frequent refeance to previus lectures, but fails to refresh, or review any important terminology! There should be more subtitles reinforcing the key new concept and terminology.
Date published: 2018-04-20
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Visual History of the Universe Unfortunately, the content was beyond me and I returned the course.
Date published: 2018-03-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Stellar! Most courses have an aspect of weakness either with the presenter, content or supporting media. I cannot find fault with this course. It is perfect in every way. I wish other courses were as well done. The topics are interesting and go to sufficient depth to be challenging and satisfying. The visuals are clear attractive and informative. The pace is perfect. If you like the cosmos and astronomy this course doesn't flag or fail.
Date published: 2018-03-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brings the universe to life David Meyer's clearly taught and stunningly illustrated 'guide' to aspects of the cosmos is absolutely one of the best Great Courses I have ever bought. Dr Meyer lets us ordinary mortals in on so much of what has been recently discovered and understood in a field of study which is difficult to do but produces such dramatic results. This has reawakened my childhood fascination with science, and especially astronomy (I'm 75!) and I look forward to spending my upcoming retirement years pursuing this further through reading ... and, naturally, more Great Courses.
Date published: 2018-02-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Science Lite This is a little shorter than the average Great Course: 3 discs, comprising 18 lectures in 9 hours. There are various ways you could organize a course with this title: by history of discoveries or by various broad topical categories for example. The way this course organizes the presentation is pretty much from near to far. The first disc presents what we've learned in recent decades about our solar system; the second disc presents what we learned about our "milky way" and the third disc presents what we've learned about the vast universe beyond our own galaxy. This is fairly light on theory, and toward the end of the course I sort of felt like the main justification for its existence was to convince the public of the worthiness of funding space-based telescopes and probes (which certainly doesn't immediately produce improvements in the average person's standard of living). I didn't need that convincing; I'm all for continuing to advance our understanding of the universe in which we are located. If you haven't already watched other documentaries on the discoveries of modern astronomy (and there have been quite a few) then you may find this fascinating. If on the other hand you have watched a fair number of documentaries on modern astronomy, you may find yourself picking up a few particular facts here and there, or simply refreshing your memory about something you heard before. I think this is suitable for a high-school to undergraduate college-level, visually-based review of the field.
Date published: 2018-01-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful! I have only recently received and viewed the first four of these lectures, but they are superb! The lecturer speaks in very academic, yet understandable, terms that make the content very exciting. He makes me want to read and study more about this subject. I am a veteran subscriber of The Great Courses, possessing more than 175 courses, and this one certainly maintains the tradition of excellence.This particular course is very well done and stimulates the imagination!
Date published: 2018-01-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from GREAT MATERIAL PRESENTED IN AN INTELLIGENT WAY This lecturer is very direct and very focused on the material and it's clear explanation. He makes complicated material as simple as it can be made. I would gladly buy any new courses he makes.
Date published: 2018-01-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Majesty and Mystery in Outer Space I’ve been interested in astronomy since I was a kid in the 60s: visiting observatories and the Adler Planetarium, then stargazing with the family on a blanket in the back yard, or counting meteors. All that took place before the advent of the Hubble telescope and its kin, so it’s amazing to see what I was missing before the advent of space telescopes and the search beyond the optical spectrum. As usual, TGC has sought out a professor who is not only enthusiastic, but also deeply involved in research and exploration. He occasionally exhibits an almost boyish excitement about some discovery or other, as he takes his students along for a ride in deep space. This course is visually stunning, illustrated with hundreds of views of planets, nebulae, and quasars. It is more or less an introductory course; as the title implied, it’s a “guide” – like the bus tours you can take in famous cities around the world, where you see the highlights but don’t learn all the history. But that’s OK, and I’m not saying that Prof. Meyer avoids going into more detailed scientific discussions. He does from time to time, but for the most part, this is a course that even a curious middle schooler would enjoy. The trouble with science courses is their shelf life. Even though this was produced in 2014, by 2017 it’s already dated: some of the satellite exploration that the Prof talks about “in the future” happened earlier this year. But most of the information is still relevant, especially to those of us who are being introduced to it for the first time. This course reflects TGC’s higher standards of visual production, with custom intros for each episode, and excellent visuals. My only regret is that no closed captioning was provided, unlike some other recent courses.
Date published: 2017-12-17
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