The Nature of Matter: Understanding the Physical World

Course No. 1227
Professor David W. Ball, Ph.D.
Cleveland State University
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Course No. 1227
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Using theories by Planck and Einstein, take a new look at energy and the overall assumptions of physics.
  • numbers Delve into the periodic table to gain insights about the information contained within it.
  • numbers Take a whole new look at the transformative properties of the chemicals in water, air, and food.
  • numbers Make sense of how superconductors and semiconductors work.

Course Overview

Matter is the raw material of the universe. Stars, planets, mountains, oceans, and atmospheres are all made of matter. So are plants and animals—including humans and every material thing we have ever produced. Amazingly, this immense variety is generated by a limited number of chemical elements that combine in simple, well-defined ways.

Consider carbon, a relatively common atom with many faces:

    Diamond: When one carbon atom bonds to four others in a cubic structure, repeated many times, the result is diamond, a form of pure carbon that is the hardest known mineral.

    Graphite: In a different geometric arrangement, carbon atoms bond in a flat lattice that is among the softest known substances, graphite, which is used in pencil leads and lubricants.

    Nanotubes: Loop a sheet of graphite, one atom thick, into a cylindrical shape and you get a carbon nanotube, a material 300 times stronger than steel with remarkable electrical properties.

    Life: You would not be reading this if carbon were not an atom of surprising versatility, able to combine with other elements to create the complex chemicals that are the basis of life.

And carbon is just one element among roughly 100 that are the basic, indivisible constituents of all normal matter. They are the ingredients of our universe, and the science of chemistry tells us how elements combine and why the resulting compounds have the properties they do.

This physical picture of the world has taken centuries to assemble, but its insights are now available to anyone. No scientific background is needed to appreciate such miracles of everyday life as the bounce of a rubber ball or water’s astonishing power to dissolve. Moreover, the study of matter has led directly to such inventions as semiconductor circuits for computers, new fabrics for clothes, and powerful adhesives for medicine and industry. These discoveries were hard-won by scientific sleuths, but we can all sit back and enjoy the details—just as we delight in the solution to a good detective story.

The Nature of Matter: Understanding the Physical World deciphers the mystery of matter in 24 engaging and enlightening half-hour lectures that are geared toward anyone with a curious mind; there are no other prerequisites. Your guide is Professor David W. Ball of Cleveland State University, a noted researcher, textbook author, and award-winning teacher, who has a gift for making chemistry beautifully accessible and engaging.

How the World Works

Starting with the fundamental components of the universe—matter, energy, and entropy—you quickly build your conceptual toolkit to include atoms and the different ways they bond to each other, forming molecules and other compounds. Plentiful graphics and animations help make these ideas crystal clear, launching you into the crucial mission of chemistry: explaining how matter behaves. In The Nature of Matter, you investigate the principles behind a fascinating array of substances, including some very familiar products:

    Teflon: Discovered by accident, this long chain of molecules, called a polymer, is chemically unreactive and very slippery, giving it a multitude of uses—from non-stick coatings to leak-proof tape for pipe fittings.

    Cotton textiles: Cotton towels and clothes are absorbent and comfortable because cotton fibers act as tiny capillaries, wicking away moisture by a phenomenon known as adhesion.

    Soap: If oil and water don’t mix, then why does soapy water remove oil? The reason is the long hydrocarbon chain of a soap molecule, which is attracted to water at one end and oil at the other.

    Gasoline: Liquid gasoline doesn’t burn easily, contrary to many movie explosions—but gasoline vapor does. It evaporates at a relatively low temperature, making it an ideal fuel for internal combustion engines.

You’ll discover that chemistry is a truly practical science, for after hearing the many examples that Professor Ball presents, you’ll be able to make informed decisions in such areas as nutrition, dental care, and recycling. This knowledge is even relevant to issues in the news like environmental pollution and climate change.

Delve Deep into Matter

Professor Ball takes you deep into the details of his field, explaining how to read the periodic table of the elements (which he calls “the most important, one-page tool in all of science”), why the electron shells in an atom are like a house, and the differences between a compound, a solution, a composite, and other arrangements of matter. Armed with this background, you’ll find that a number of life’s ordinary enigmas suddenly make sense:

    Why does salt melt ice? In the lecture on solutions, you learn how particles of salt (the solute) interfere with the formation of crystals in water ice, giving it a lower freezing point and causing it to melt.

    How do you tell a vitamin from a mineral? Vitamin and mineral nutrients illustrate an important division in chemistry: vitamins are typically covalent compounds, while minerals are usually ionic compounds.

    Is car wax necessary? Water beads rather than pools on a waxed car, inhibiting the formation of rust. In chemical terms, the adhesion between water and wax is much lower than the cohesion within bulk water.

    How do lizards climb up walls? Solved only recently, this mystery involves tiny hairs on the lizard’s toes, which stick to the wall through intermolecular forces, a phenomenon that has inspired new adhesives.

      You’ll also study some extraordinary enigmas, such as superconductivity, which is the flow of electricity with zero resistance. Long thought to be achievable only at temperatures close to absolute zero, this phenomenon has been observed at higher temperatures in certain ceramics and other materials, raising the possibility of power transmission with perfect efficiency.

      Why Matter Matters

      Since prehistoric times, knowledge of materials has driven the development of civilization. The Stone Age was succeeded by the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the industrial age, and now the age of silicon—the element that is the basis of the semiconductor revolution.

      What’s next? Professor Ball devotes his final lecture to future trends in the science of matter. Speculation about the future often feels unreal. But after absorbing the previous 23 lectures of The Nature of Matter, you will know enough to form your own opinions. Is nanotechnology around the corner? Will 3-D printing take off in spectacular new directions? Can we adapt the secrets of spider silk, barnacle glue, and other remarkable biomaterials for our own uses?

      It all depends on how we manipulate the raw materials of the world. Professor Ball notes that the “fun part about being a chemist is that we still have lots of combinations of these raw materials to explore.” And the joy of this course is learning from an outstanding teacher who is part of this exciting quest.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Matter, Energy, and Entropy
    Starting with a deck of cards tossed into the air, explore the key concepts of matter, energy, and entropy, which are the building blocks of the physical universe. Study examples of these phenomena, and see how they are demonstrated by the behavior of the airborne cards. x
  • 2
    The Nature of Light and Matter
    Trace a scientific revolution that started with a curious observation about light and a seemingly nonsensical explanation. Learn how Max Planck's proposal that energy is related to frequency, and Albert Einstein's application of this principle to light, gave birth to modern physics. x
  • 3
    A New Theory of Matter
    Discover how the idea that light comes in discrete packets called "quanta" led to a startling new theory of matter: quantum mechanics. One prediction is that matter, like light, behaves as both a particle and a wave, a property observed in subatomic particles such as electrons. x
  • 4
    The Structure of Atoms and Molecules
    Understand atomic and molecular structure with the help of a simple analogy: the rooms of a house and the collection of houses in a city. See how the electrons of an atom occupy shells, subshells, and orbitals, which give atoms and molecules their distinctive properties. x
  • 5
    The Stellar Atom-Building Machine
    Where did atoms come from? Trace the story of nucleosynthesis - the formation of complex nuclei and atoms. Cover this process from the big bang, which filled the universe with hydrogen and helium, to the events inside stars that produced practically all of the heavier elements. x
  • 6
    The Amazing Periodic Table
    Investigate an astonishingly powerful scientific tool: the periodic table of the elements. Delve into the insights that led Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev to construct the first modern version of the table in the 1860s, and explore the world of information it contains. x
  • 7
    Ionic versus Covalent Matter
    Embark on an atomic adventure that explains the differences between vitamins and minerals, among other marvels of the chemical realm. Use your background in electron shell structure from Lecture 4 to understand why atoms form ionic and covalent bonds. x
  • 8
    The Versatile Element: Carbon
    Study the amazing properties of the carbon atom, which can attach itself to other carbon atoms to form the hardest known mineral (diamond) and also one of the softest (graphite). It all depends on the geometry of the bonds. Discover other types of pure carbon: fullerenes, nanotubes, and graphene. x
  • 9
    The Strange Behavior of Water
    Analyze one of the weirdest of all substances: water. While we think of water as normal, its boiling, freezing, dissolving, and heat-storing properties are quite extraordinary compared to other molecules. Discover why this is and what water's attributes have to do with the existence of life. x
  • 10
    Matter in Solution
    Explore the nature of chemical solutions, which can be liquid, solid, or gaseous, and are ubiquitous in daily life. Examples include dental fillings, air, blood, and soft drinks. Study the components of a solution - the solvent and solute - and the principles of what dissolves what. x
  • 11
    Interactions: Adhesion and Cohesion
    Probe the forces that allow lizards to walk up walls: adhesion and cohesion, which are ways that materials interact with themselves and with other materials. By examining these forces in depth, learn how adhesives work and why cotton makes the best towels. x
  • 12
    Surface Energy: The Interfaces among Us
    A surface is a discontinuity, or interface, between one phase of matter and another. Focus on this crucial boundary, which affects everything from a spacecraft reentering the atmosphere to the efficient washing of clothes. Explore surface phenomena such as films, surface tension, and catalysts. x
  • 13
    The Eloquent Chemistry of Carbon Compounds
    Delve into the richness of organic chemistry - the study of carbon compounds that have links to living things. Learn some of the basic terminology, and survey common organic compounds such as alkanes, alcohols, ethers, aldehydes, ketones, organic acids, and esters. x
  • 14
    Materials for Body Implants
    Today, medicine can replace many parts of the human body thanks to an improved understanding of materials and their biochemistry. Trace the progress in body implants from dental fillings and tooth implants to artificial hips, knees, hearts, arteries, and breast implants. x
  • 15
    The Chemistry of Food and Drink
    Explore the chemistry of food and drink from the point of view of the cook and the consumer. What are the chemicals in an egg, a piece of toast, a slice of bacon, and other typical foods? How does cooking transform them, and how are the chemicals utilized by our bodies? x
  • 16
    Fuels and Explosives
    Study the different ways that stored chemical energy is released in substances such as gasoline, coal, natural gas, nitroglycerine, and TNT. Learn the difference between detonation, which is what high explosives do, and deflagration, which happens to the fuel in an internal combustion engine. x
  • 17
    The Air We Breathe
    Analyze the mix of gases in air, from the most abundant - nitrogen and oxygen - to minor constituents such as argon and carbon dioxide. Explore the phenomenon of air pressure and how it affects human life. Also chart the worrisome increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. x
  • 18
    Materials: The Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages
    The rise of civilization went hand in hand with advances in the understanding of materials. Learn how the Stone Age gave way to the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age, as ancient people learned to smelt ore and manipulate the properties of metals and alloys. x
  • 19
    Again and Again: Polymers
    The mystery of a bouncing rubber ball launches you into the study of polymers - long molecules with many repeating subunits. Explore their immense variety, from "poly" synthetics like polyethylene and polyester to organic molecules such as proteins, carbohydrates, and DNA. x
  • 20
    Recycling Materials
    Investigate the ease of recycling some materials, such as aluminum and asphalt, and the impracticality of reusing others, such as certain plastics. Look at the different types of plastic, metal, paper, and glass, and discover what you can put in the recycle bin and why. x
  • 21
    Resistance Is Futile: Superconductors
    Under special conditions, some materials lose all resistance to electron flow, becoming superconductors that transmit electricity with 100 percent efficiency. Probe this phenomenon at the atomic level, and learn how scientists are discovering new, more practical superconducting materials. x
  • 22
    Resistance Is Useful: Semiconductors
    How does a tiny piece of impure silicon launch an electronics revolution? Follow the development of semiconductors from the invention of the transistor in the 1940s to ever-smaller circuits that are now measured in nanometers. Along the way, discover how today's complex microchips are made. x
  • 23
    Out of Many, One: Composites
    When different materials combine to create something very unlike its individual components, you have a composite. Learn what gives composites superior properties. Explore a wide range of examples, including concrete, carbon fiber, fiberglass, Kevlar, automobile tires, carbon nanotubes, and aerogel. x
  • 24
    The Future of Materials
    Close your study of the nature of matter by looking ahead at ambitious goals for future materials, and review examples of past science fiction that's now science fact. Achievements like the Moon landings and the Internet suggest that nanoscale technologies, a cure for cancer, and other dreams may one day become reality. x

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  • Download 24 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 200-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 200-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos, diagrams & equations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

David W. Ball

About Your Professor

David W. Ball, Ph.D.
Cleveland State University
David W. Ball is a Professor of Chemistry at Cleveland State University in Ohio. He received his bachelor's degree from Baylor University and his master's and doctoral degrees from Rice University. After performing post-doctoral research at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California, he joined Cleveland State as an Assistant Professor, rising to the rank of Professor in 2002 and becoming Chair of the Chemistry Department in...
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The Nature of Matter: Understanding the Physical World is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 32.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good Lecturer presents very well and covers territory between basic chemistry and introductory materials science.
Date published: 2020-07-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof. Ball and "The Nature of Matter" I have viewed lectures 1 -7. I view each twice and read the lecture notes for each chapter after the second viewing. I took first year university chemistry 35 years ago, and I thought this course would be a nice review. Much of the course content so far (lecture 7) is very basic, and much of it I still remember, but there are some nice details and ideas that were new to me. Prof Ball is very good, and you can tell he likes his subject and knows alot about it. My only minor complaint is that there should be more illustrations, or possibly even demonstrations. This course is like basic first year chemistry, but without any quantitative analysis. You could say that it is a chemistry course for people who think they cannot do mathematical or symbolic reasoning.
Date published: 2020-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Ball is a Human Encyclopedia! Dr. Ball's hands talk too, economically. I highly recommend this course to a novice or an expert.
Date published: 2019-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good review of main concepts Very good choice of memorable examples for the concepts
Date published: 2019-07-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Too soon to ask for a review Much as I enjoy this presentation, I only view it a half hour at a time. I think it isn't wise to ask for opinions so early. I suppose I will soon be asked to review two more recently purchased courses, neither of which is even unwrapped yet.
Date published: 2019-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Educational Series. As an long standing engineer, I found this series of interest and was pleased to learn a great deal from the presenter
Date published: 2018-04-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from New Theories Of Matter I am half way through this course and loving every lecture. The lectures are delivered professionally with interesting illustrations. The material is very up to date. I'm learning new theories of matter that have changed since I last studied Chemistry and Physics. I highly recommend this course to anyone who wonders about why matter differs and how and why it acts and reacts differently.
Date published: 2017-12-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Wonder of Materials I have a hard time thinking of this as a chemistry course. The course does start off with some essential details of chemistry: entropy, atomic structure, molecular bonding, the periodic table. Professor Ball's description of the periodic table is insightful and wonderful, and I am always fascinated by the subtle differences between the way chemists and physicists talk about entropy. Overall though the chemistry he describes is but an introductory tool to focus on the wonders of the matter and the materials that make up our world: what they are, where do they come from, what are their properties, why are they useful, what will the future bring. Professor Ball's lucid descriptions brought the world of materials into focus in a way that enriched my appreciation of the stuff around me. This course is not a mind-bender. It is more comprehensive than detailed. Sometimes that level is just about right.
Date published: 2017-10-19
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