Understanding the Universe: An Introduction to Astronomy, 2nd Edition

Course No. 1810
Professor Alex Filippenko, Ph.D.
University of California, Berkeley
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Course No. 1810
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers From wormholes to quantum mechanics to dark matter, enjoy a comprehensive look at the fundamentals of astrophysics.
  • numbers Make sense of the complexities of astrophysics with the help of thousands of easy-to-understand graphics and animations.
  • numbers Witness the breathtaking range of objects in the Universe with the aid of hundreds of images from the Hubble Telescope.
  • numbers Learn about the growing number of unmanned missions designed to explore little-known features of our solar system.

Course Overview

This visually rich course is designed to provide a nontechnical description of modern astronomy, including the structure and evolution of planets, stars, galaxies, and the Universe as a whole. It includes almost all of the material in my first two astronomy courses for The Teaching Company, produced in 1998 and 2003, but with a large number of new images, diagrams, and animations. The discoveries reported in the 2003 course are integrated throughout these new lectures, and more recent findings (through mid-2006) are included, as well. Much has happened in astronomy during the past few years; we will discuss the most exciting and important advances.

Astronomical objects have been explored with breathtaking data obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Keck 10-meter telescopes, planetary probes, and other modern instruments. We will explore amazing phenomena, such as quasars, exploding stars, neutron stars, and black holes, and we will see how they increase our understanding of the physical principles of nature. We will also investigate recent newsworthy topics, such as the Cassini mission to Saturn, evidence for liquid water on ancient Mars, the discovery of many small bodies beyond Neptune in our Solar System, the detection of numerous planets around other stars, the nonzero mass of ghostly neutrinos, enormously powerful gamma-ray bursts, the conclusive evidence for a supermassive black hole in the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, the determination of the age of the Universe, the discovery of a long-range repulsive effect accelerating the expansion of the Universe, and progress in the unification of nature’s fundamental forces. Scientifically reasonable speculations regarding the birth of the Universe, the possibility of multiple universes, and the probability of extraterrestrial life are also included.

This course concentrates on the most exciting aspects of our fantastic Universe and on the methods astronomers have used to develop an understanding of it. The lectures present, in clear and simple terms, explanations of how the Universe “works,” as well as the interrelationships among its components. Reliance on basic mathematics and physics is minimal but appropriate in some sections to deepen the interested viewer’s quantitative understanding of the material.

The course is divided into three major sections, each of which consists of several units. (These major sections are called “parts” during the lectures, but they are not to be confused with the eight 12-lecture “parts” used in packaging the lectures.)

There are 24 lectures in Section 1, entitled “Observing the Heavens.” The first unit, “Celestial Sights for Everyone,” describes simple daytime and nighttime observations that you can make to better appreciate the sky and what it contains. Various commonly observed phenomena, such as seasons, lunar phases, and eclipses, are also discussed. The second unit, “The Early History of Astronomy,” covers the study of astronomy from the ancient Greeks through Newton, including the transition from geocentric (Earth-centered) to heliocentric (Sun-centered) models of the Universe. In the third unit, “Basic Concepts and Tools,” we provide an overview of distance and time scales in the Universe to put our discussions in perspective. Because the study of light is of central importance to astronomy, we spend several lectures explaining its physical nature and utility. Modern telescopes, the main instruments used by astronomers, are also described.

Section 2, “The Contents of the Universe,” consists of 46 lectures in 5 units. In the first unit, “Our Solar System,” we discuss the major constituents of our own planetary system, including the Sun, planets and their moons, comets, asteroids, and Kuiper-belt objects. The discovery of a distant body larger than Pluto and the subsequent, highly controversial demotion of Pluto from planetary status made headlines worldwide. The formation of other stars and planetary systems, as well as the discovery of such extrasolar planets, is the subject of the second unit, “Other Planetary Systems.” During the past decade, about 200 planets have been found orbiting other stars, making this one of the most exciting areas of modern astronomy. The search for extraterrestrial life is also described.

In the third unit of Section 2, “Stars and Their Lives,” we learn about the properties of other stars and the various observations needed to deduce them. Nuclear reactions, the source of energy from the stars, are described, as well. We examine how stars eventually become red giants, subsequently shedding their outer layers to end up as dense white dwarfs, retired stars. The explosive fates of some rare types of stars are the subject of the fourth unit, “Stellar Explosions and Black Holes,” and we explain how the heavy elements necessary for life are created. Bizarre stellar remnants include neutron stars and black holes, the realm of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. We continue our exploration of black holes with such phenomena as black-hole evaporation and powerful gamma-ray bursts, as well as speculations that black holes are gateways to other universes. In the fifth unit, “The Milky Way and Other Galaxies,” we extend our explorations to the giant collections of stars called galaxies, along the way examining evidence for mysterious dark matter.

Section 3, “Cosmology: The Universe as a Whole,” comprises the final 26 lectures of the course in 3 units. The first unit, “Cosmic Expansion and Distant Galaxies,” introduces the expansion of the Universe and shows how it is used to study the evolution of galaxies. We discuss active galaxies and quasars, in which matter is inferred to be falling into a central, supermassive black hole. In the second unit, “The Structure and Evolution of the Universe,” aspects of the Universe, such as its age, geometry, and possible fate, are considered. We examine evidence for the stunning conclusion that the expansion of the Universe is currently accelerating. We also describe the cosmic microwave background radiation—the generally uniform afterglow of the Big Bang—as well as the tiny irregularities that reveal the presence of early density variations from which all of the large-scale structure of the Universe subsequently formed. The nature of dark energy accelerating the Universe is explored in terms of modern attempts to unify forces, such as string theory.

In the third and final unit, “The Birth of the Cosmos, and Other Frontiers,” we examine the very early history of the Universe, showing how the lightest elements formed during a phase of primordial nucleosynthesis. The recognition of several troubling problems with the standard Big Bang theory led to a magnificent refinement—an inflationary epoch of expansion that lasted only a tiny fraction of a second. The possible connection between inflation and the currently accelerating expansion of space is also discussed. We then consider very speculative ideas regarding the birth of the Universe and the hypothesis of multiple universes. We end, in the last lecture, on a philosophical note, with some reflections on intelligent life in the cosmos and of our place in the grand scheme of things.

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96 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    A Grand Tour of the Cosmos
    You embark on a fantastic voyage throughout the Universe, starting in this lecture with a whirlwind tour of the course, which extends from phenomena in Earth's atmosphere to events at the farthest reaches of space and time. x
  • 2
    The Rainbow Connection
    The daytime sky contains intriguing natural sights that offer a colorful introduction to astronomy. One such phenomenon is the rainbow. This lecture examines how a rainbow is created and how it appears under different circumstances. x
  • 3
    Sunrise, Sunset
    Continuing the study of the daytime sky, this lecture examines phenomena associated with sunrise and sunset, including the elusive green flash, Buddha's rays, and Earth's own shadow at sunset. x
  • 4
    Bright Objects in the Night Sky
    Many objects in the night sky can be enjoyed with the naked eye, even from the city. These include several famous constellations, bright stars, planets, and satellites such as the International Space Station. x
  • 5
    Fainter Phenomena in the Night Sky
    Far from city lights, the night sky becomes spectacular and includes such sights as the Milky Way, the Magellanic Clouds, zodiacal light, and comets. Though not technically "celestial," auroras are also wondrous spectacles. x
  • 6
    Our Sky through Binoculars and Telescopes
    A relatively inexpensive telescope and even a simple pair of binoculars greatly increase the number of celestial objects you can study, such as the craters on the Moon, the Orion Nebula, and the Andromeda Galaxy. x
  • 7
    The Celestial Sphere
    As Earth rotates on its axis and orbits the Sun, the night sky changes over a 24-hour period, as well as throughout the year. This lecture explains how to locate celestial bodies and why the sky appears different from place to place. x
  • 8
    The Reason for the Seasons
    Contrary to popular belief, the seasons are not caused by changes in the distance between Earth and the Sun over the course of a year. Instead, the tilt of Earth's axis of spin relative to the axis of its orbital plane produces seasons. x
  • 9
    Lunar Phases and Eerie Lunar Eclipses
    Lunar phases occur as the Moon orbits Earth, changing the viewing perspective of the Moon's illuminated hemisphere. Lunar eclipses take place when Earth, the Sun, and Moon are almost exactly aligned. x
  • 10
    Glorious Total Solar Eclipses
    Total solar eclipses are stunning celestial sights, which occur when the Moon comes between Earth and the Sun, totally blocking the Sun for a small portion of the Earth. These rare events reveal beautiful and thrilling phenomena. x
  • 11
    More Eclipse Tales
    Solar eclipses also come in annular and hybrid varieties, reflecting the varying distance of the Moon from Earth. A famous total solar eclipse in 1919 provided observational evidence for Einstein's general theory of relativity. x
  • 12
    Early Studies of the Solar System
    Astronomy has its roots in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Babylon, India, Egypt, and China. The Greeks in particular developed sophisticated and sometimes surprisingly accurate theories of the nature of the heavens. x
  • 13
    The Geocentric Universe
    The Greek philosopher Aristotle concluded that Earth is stationary at the center of the Universe, surrounded by 55 nested spheres. Ptolemy elaborated this geocentric model into a system that held sway for nearly 1,500 years. x
  • 14
    Galileo and the Copernican Revolution
    In 1543, Copernicus proposed a heliocentric system, in which Earth and other planets orbit the Sun, which is at the center of the Universe. In the early 1600s Galileo provided strong evidence for this model with the newly invented telescope. x
  • 15
    Refinements to the Heliocentric Model
    This lecture explores the refinements in the Copernican model made possible by Tycho's extremely accurate measurements of planetary positions, which were analyzed by Kepler to produce his laws of planetary motion. x
  • 16
    On the Shoulders of Giants
    According to legend, Newton saw a falling apple and realized that the force that pulled it toward Earth also pulled on the Moon, keeping it in its orbit. Building on the work of Kepler and Galileo, he revolutionized astronomy with his law of universal gravitation and laws of motion. x
  • 17
    Surveying Space and Time
    Observations of the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun in the 18th century helped determine the scale of the Solar System. In the wider Universe, distances are so vast that the finite speed of light means we are literally looking back in time. x
  • 18
    Scale Models of the Universe
    The best way to understand the size of the Universe is to investigate it in a series of steps, each 10 times larger or smaller than the one preceding. In this way, you explore the cosmos from the smallest to the largest scale. x
  • 19
    Light—The Supreme Informant
    Astronomers obtain most of their information through the analysis of light. This lecture introduces the electromagnetic spectrum and the technique of spectroscopy, in which light is dispersed into its component colors, as in a rainbow. x
  • 20
    The Wave-Particle Duality of Light
    Delving deeper into the nature of light, you explore the strange duality between electromagnetic waves (light waves) and particles (photons), which is a fundamental feature of quantum theory. x
  • 21
    The Colors of Stars
    The surface temperature of a star determines its apparent color. The hottest stars are bluish in color, and the coldest stars are reddish; stars at intermediate temperatures appear white. The Sun is a white star. x
  • 22
    The Fingerprints of Atoms
    Electrons jumping between different energy levels in atoms emit and absorb photons in a characteristic way for each element. Thus, astronomers can use the light from distant objects to deduce their chemical compositions. x
  • 23
    Modern Telescopes
    Today's telescopes are designed to provide huge light-gathering mirrors at relatively low cost. The mirrors focus light from distant objects onto sensitive electronic detectors that are far more efficient than traditional photographic film. x
  • 24
    A Better Set of Eyes
    This lecture looks at radio telescopes, adaptive optics for ground-based infrared telescopes, and NASA's Great Observatories, which include the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and Spitzer Space Telescope. x
  • 25
    Our Sun, the Nearest Star
    Beginning a sequence of lectures on the Solar System, you start with the Sun, which you explore from the interior to the surface. Sunspots are cooler regions associated with strong magnetic fields, and violent eruptions blast solar material into space. x
  • 26
    The Earth, Third Rock from the Sun
    Earth is one of the four innermost, or terrestrial, planets; the others are Mercury, Venus, and Mars. All are relatively small, rocky, and dense. This lecture examines Earth's structure, properties, and the forces that affect it. x
  • 27
    Our Moon, Earth's Nearest Neighbor
    This lecture covers the wealth of knowledge about the Moon, a heavily cratered world with extensive lava-filled basins on the Earth-facing side and yet few such features on the far side—which is not perpetually dark. x
  • 28
    Mercury and Venus
    Though broadly similar to Earth, Mercury and Venus differ in detail. Mercury has a negligible atmosphere and is heavily cratered. Venus has an incredibly thick atmosphere and suffers from an extreme greenhouse effect that makes it intensely hot. x
  • 29
    Of Mars and Martians
    Recent missions to Mars provide evidence for an early water-rich era that may have fostered primitive life. Today, Mars is a cold, apparently lifeless world. Evidence for fossil life in a Martian meteorite remains controversial. x
  • 30
    Jupiter and Its Amazing Moons
    Beyond Mars lie the four gas giants: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Jupiter is the Solar System's largest planet by far. Its moons include Io, which is volcanically active, and Europa, which may have an ocean of liquid water below its frozen surface. x
  • 31
    Magnificent Saturn
    Best known for its extensive ring system, Saturn has come into focus recently thanks to the Cassini spacecraft, which landed a probe on Saturn's largest moon, Titan; and also discovered evidence of liquid water on the moon Enceladus. x
  • 32
    Uranus and Neptune, the Small Giants
    Though less massive than Jupiter and Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are similar in that they consist mostly of hydrogen and helium. Both have bizarre magnetic fields that are highly tilted relative to the planet's rotation axis and offset from the planet's center. x
  • 33
    Pluto and Its Cousins
    Discovered in 1930, Pluto was long considered a planet. However, the detection of more and more objects in the same region strongly suggests that it is a member of a reservoir of comet-like bodies in the Kuiper belt. x
  • 34
    Asteroids and Dwarf Planets
    Under a new definition adopted in 2006, planets are more narrowly defined and a new class called dwarf planets has been created, which includes Pluto, Eris (a Kuiper-belt object larger than Pluto), and Ceres (the largest asteroid). x
  • 35
    Comets—Gorgeous Primordial Snowballs
    Comets are "dirty snowballs" from beyond the orbit of Neptune. As they approach the Sun, they begin to evaporate and produce gaseous tails. In 2005, a space probe impacted Comet Tempel 1, revealing the nature of its interior. x
  • 36
    Catastrophic Collisions
    Comets and asteroids have struck Earth throughout its history. One such collision 65 million years ago probably caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Astronomers now search for asteroids that could be a potential threat to Earth. x
  • 37
    The Formation of Planetary Systems
    Planets form inside a rotating cloud of dust and gas, which flattens as it contracts. At the center, the temperature is high enough to create a star; farther from the center, leftover material collects into planets. x
  • 38
    The Quest for Other Planetary Systems
    In 1995, the first extra-solar planet was discovered around a Sun-like star. Since then, about 200 have been found. The easiest to detect are those with large masses, close to their host stars, and with brief orbital periods. x
  • 39
    Extra-Solar Planets Galore!
    Because extra-solar planets are too dim to be seen directly, they are detected using a variety of ingenious techniques. Two examples: Minute variations in a star's spectrum and tiny changes in its brightness can signal the presence of planets. x
  • 40
    Life Beyond the Earth
    The recent discovery of extra-solar planets rekindles the age-old question of whether there is life beyond Earth. This lecture examines the possibility of rudimentary life on other planets and moons in the Solar System. x
  • 41
    The Search for Extraterrestrials
    Are there intelligent extraterrestrials elsewhere in our Galaxy? One way to search is to scan the radio spectrum for evidence of their electronic signals. The Drake equation suggests ways to estimate their prevalence. x
  • 42
    Special Relativity and Interstellar Travel
    Are interstellar voyages possible within a single human lifetime? According to Einstein's special theory of relativity, the answer is "yes" in principle but "no" in practice, given current technology. You explore the reasons for both answers. x
  • 43
    Stars—Distant Suns
    A voyage to another star would require exact information on distances and properties of the stars. This lecture shows how astronomers measure the distance to nearby stars and how they determine their surface temperatures, which are the basis for stellar classification. x
  • 44
    The Intrinsic Brightnesses of Stars
    Apparent brightness is the observed brightness of a star. Because stars are at different distances, astronomers need a standard reference by which to compare stars in absolute terms, as if they're all at the same distance: This standard is called intrinsic brightness, or luminosity. x
  • 45
    The Diverse Sizes of Stars
    This lecture discusses the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, a plot of stellar surface temperature versus luminosity that contains a wealth of information. Stars spend most of their existence on the diagram's well-defined main sequence; outliers include supergiants and white dwarfs. x
  • 46
    Binary Stars and Stellar Masses
    Many stars are members of binary systems, in which two stars orbit a common center of mass. Our best estimates of how much mass stars have come from observations of binaries. We find that massive stars have far shorter lives than low-mass stars. x
  • 47
    Star Clusters, Ages, and Remote Distances
    Star clusters are gravitationally bound groups of stars that are all about the same age and the same distance from Earth. Astronomers can determine the approximate ages of clusters. This lecture also explains how the distance of extremely remote stars is found. x
  • 48
    How Stars Shine—Nature's Nuclear Reactors
    When the central temperature of a contracting cloud of gas grows sufficiently high, it becomes a star—a gigantic, controlled, thermonuclear reactor, fusing hydrogen into helium and maintaining a constant luminosity and size. x
  • 49
    Solar Neutrinos—Probes of the Sun's Core
    Physicists had long assumed that nuclear fusion occurred in the Sun's core, though without a way to physically measure or observe this. Ghostly particles called neutrinos provide direct evidence of events in the Sun's nuclear furnace. x
  • 50
    Brown Dwarfs and Free-Floating Planets
    Brown dwarfs are low-mass objects whose dim glow is caused by slow gravitational contraction and the fusion of deuterium, a heavier but far less abundant isotope of hydrogen. Free-floating planets have even less mass than brown dwarfs and are not associated with any star. x
  • 51
    Our Sun's Brilliant Future
    As it gradually uses up the hydrogen in its core, fusing it to helium, the Sun will expand to form a red giant star. Through a series of relatively nonviolent eruptions, it will expel its outer layers of gas, producing a beautiful, glowing nebula around the dying core. x
  • 52
    White Dwarfs and Nova Eruptions
    The burned out Sun will eventually contract into a white dwarf. This is the fate of all stars between roughly 0.08 and 8 solar masses. A white dwarf in a binary system may steal matter from its companion star and flare up in an eruption called a nova. x
  • 53
    Exploding Stars—Celestial Fireworks!
    A few stars end their lives with cataclysmic explosions, expelling gas at huge speeds. At its peak, such a supernova can rival the brightness of an entire galaxy, and its remnants can be seen for centuries. The Crab Nebula is one such remnant. x
  • 54
    White Dwarf Supernovae—Stealing to Explode
    Supernovae come in several types, based primarily on their spectra. This lecture focuses on the important, hydrogen-deficient subclass called Type Ia, in which a white dwarf robs gas from its companion star and then becomes violently unstable. x
  • 55
    Core-Collapse Supernovae—Gravity Wins
    Type II supernovae, whose spectra exhibit hydrogen, come from massive supergiant stars whose core suddenly collapses, ejecting the rest of the star. This mechanism also applies to "stripped" stars that had previously lost their outermost layers through winds and transfer to companions. x
  • 56
    The Brightest Supernova in Nearly 400 Years
    In 1987 a Type II supernova only 170,000 light years away became visible. Earlier photos of the region showed that the exploded star was a blue supergiant, a previously unsuspected candidate for this fate. Ghostly neutrinos were detected from this supernova. x
  • 57
    The Corpses of Massive Stars
    The imploding core of a Type II supernova typically forms a bizarre, enormously compact object called a neutron star, consisting entirely of tightly packed neutrons, a teaspoon of which would weigh about a billion tons. x
  • 58
    Einstein's General Theory of Relativity
    Understanding the enormous gravitational fields of neutron stars requires Einstein's general theory of relativity, which postulates that gravity is a manifestation of the warping of space and time produced by matter and energy. x
  • 59
    Warping of Space and Time
    This lecture explores observational tests of general relativity. Astronomers exploit its effects by searching for distant objects that are gravitationally lensed, which occurs when an object's light is bent and focused by foreground masses such as galaxy clusters. x
  • 60
    Black Holes—Abandon Hope, Ye Who Enter
    If a neutron star exceeds two to three solar masses, it becomes unstable and collapses. The resulting object is called a black hole—a region of such extreme space-time curvature that nothing, not even light, can escape. x
  • 61
    The Quest for Black Holes
    Because they don't emit any light, black holes can't be seen directly. But they reveal their presence through their gravitational influence on other objects. This lecture looks at the methods astronomers use to track them down. x
  • 62
    Imagining the Journey to a Black Hole
    What's a black hole really like? Without taking the fatal journey into one, astronomers can calculate the bizarre experiences that would ensue, including dramatic distortions in visual phenomena as a traveler approached the event horizon. x
  • 63
    Wormholes—Gateways to Other Universes?
    Rotating black holes appear to connect our Universe to others or provide shortcuts—or wormholes—within our Universe. This raises the theoretical possibility of time travel, although several factors seem to rule it out. x
  • 64
    Quantum Physics and Black-Hole Evaporation
    Originally, astronomers thought that black holes were truly black, but physicist Stephen Hawking has calculated that black holes slowly evaporate through a quantum mechanical process. Very small black holes should literally explode as a burst of gamma rays! x
  • 65
    Enigmatic Gamma-Ray Bursts
    Roughly once per day, somewhere in the sky, there is a short, intense burst of gamma rays. Most of these events originate in very distant galaxies, making them among the most powerful explosions in the Universe—but they are not evaporating black holes. x
  • 66
    Birth Cries of Black Holes
    Until recently, astronomers had no smoking gun to identify the precise location and cause of gamma-ray bursts. Now they have assembled an abundance of clues pointing to two separate mechanisms: the collapse of a massive star, and the merging of two neutron stars—in each case creating a black hole. x
  • 67
    Our Home—The Milky Way Galaxy
    Starting a series of lectures on galaxies, you begin with our home galaxy, the Milky Way. The band of light by that name is simply the Galaxy seen edge-on from our place within it. You also explore the nebulae in our Galaxy, many of which are regions of stellar birth. x
  • 68
    Structure of the Milky Way Galaxy
    How do you map the structure of a galaxy when you live inside it? Astronomers have used various clues to infer the spiral structure of the Milky Way, the orbital speed of its stars, and the existence of a supermassive black hole at its center. x
  • 69
    Other Galaxies—"Island Universes"
    The discovery of other galaxies beyond the Milky Way was one of the great scientific detective stories of the early 20th century. Astronomers now know that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, spanning billions of light years of space. x
  • 70
    The Dark Side of Matter
    Until a few decades ago, astronomers thought that galaxies were composed primarily of stars. There is now strong evidence that most of the mass of galaxies may be invisible dark matter. Clusters of galaxies are also dominated by dark matter. x
  • 71
    Cosmology—The Really Big Picture
    This lecture starts the study of the Universe as a whole—or cosmology. A key finding made by Edwin Hubble in 1929 was that the spectra of distant galaxies are redshifted more than those of nearby galaxies, suggesting that the Universe is expanding. x
  • 72
    Expansion of the Universe and the Big Bang
    The Universe can be thought of as expanding into a mathematical dimension to which we have no physical access. Even an infinite Universe can expand, becoming less dense. The expansion suggests that there was a hot, dense beginning long ago—a Big Bang. x
  • 73
    Searching for Distant Galaxies
    The finite speed of light allows observers to look back in time and see the unfolding history of the Universe. This lecture shows how astronomers search for distant galaxies to compare with better understood, nearby galaxies. x
  • 74
    The Evolution of Galaxies
    How do galaxies form and evolve over time? Is it possible to determine what nearby galaxies, or even the Milky Way, once looked like? The answers can be found by examining distant galaxies that formed when the Universe was young. x
  • 75
    Active Galaxies and Quasars
    The central regions of many galaxies go through an active, very luminous phase early in their development. The most powerful of these active galaxies, called quasars, shine like beacons across billions of light years of space. x
  • 76
    Cosmic Powerhouses of the Distant Past
    The high luminosity of quasars puzzled astronomers in the 1960s. How could these peculiar, star-like objects be so bright and yet so far away? Only a few light years across, they are in fact even more powerful than entire galaxies. x
  • 77
    Supermassive Black Holes
    Astronomers now have strong evidence that quasars and other active galactic nuclei are powered by supermassive black holes, voraciously swallowing surrounding material. Less active galaxies also appear to harbor these monsters. x
  • 78
    Feeding the Monster
    This lecture explores the disks of gas around supermassive black holes. Material escaping from the vicinity of these objects often follows a highly focused jet along the rotation axis of the disk, sometimes approaching or even appearing to surpass the speed of light. x
  • 79
    The Paradox of the Dark Night Sky
    Why is the sky dark at night? In an infinitely old and large Universe the sky should be ablaze with light at all times. There are several possible answers to this paradox, each of which has profound cosmological implications. The relative youth of the Universe is now known to be the main explanation. x
  • 80
    The Age of the Universe
    How old is the Universe? The Hubble Space Telescope was designed, in part, to answer this question. You follow the chain of reasoning that has led astronomers to conclude that the Universe began 13.7 billion years ago. x
  • 81
    When Geometry Is Destiny
    According to general relativity, the fate of the Universe is tied to its global geometry. If the Universe has positive curvature, like a sphere, it must eventually collapse in a "Big Crunch." If it is flat or has negative curvature, however, it will expand forever. x
  • 82
    The Mass Density of the Universe
    This lecture explores methods used by astronomers to determine the mass density and expansion history of the Universe. To make this measurement, a race developed between two teams of astronomers searching for Type Ia supernovae in distant galaxies. x
  • 83
    Einstein's Biggest Blunder?
    The unexpected finding that the Universe is expanding at an ever-faster rate lends support for the existence of a non-zero cosmological constant, a formerly discredited idea of Einstein's, which he once called his "biggest blunder." x
  • 84
    The Afterglow of the Big Bang
    An accidental discovery in 1965 overturned the "steady-state theory" of the Universe, an alternative to the Big Bang theory. The detection of a uniform microwave "glow" in all directions was exactly what was expected if the Universe was hot and dense long ago. x
  • 85
    Ripples in the Cosmic Background Radiation
    The cosmic microwave background radiation preserves intriguing details about the Universe around 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the temperature had cooled enough so that neutral atoms formed, allowing photons to pass freely through space. x
  • 86
    The Stuff of the Cosmos
    The dark energy that is causing the expansion of the Universe to accelerate makes up about 75 percent of the cosmos. Ordinary matter glowing at any wavelength, optical or otherwise, accounts for less than 5 percent. The remainder is dark matter, most of which may consist of exotic subatomic particles. x
  • 87
    Dark Energy—Quantum Fluctuations?
    According to one idea, repulsive dark energy having a negative pressure might be the result of a non-perfect cancellation of quantum fluctuations in space—virtual particles created literally out of nothing, as predicted by quantum physics. x
  • 88
    Dark Energy—Quintessence?
    This lecture looks at problems with the quantum fluctuations explanation for dark energy. One alternative is called quintessence?—a class of models that postulate repulsive energy that may be associated with unified forces or fields. x
  • 89
    Grand Unification & Theories of Everything
    A major effort is underway to unify the mutually inconsistent theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics into a theory of everything. Successfully explaining dark energy might serve as an observational test for such a theory. x
  • 90
    Searching for Hidden Dimensions
    The leading contenders for a theory of everything are string theories, which postulate that fundamental particles act like tiny, vibrating strings of energy. This approach requires at least 10 dimensions, most of which are curled up on minuscule size scales. x
  • 91
    The Shape, Size, and Fate of the Universe
    Is the Universe a finite bubble in a higher-dimensional space? Or, is it infinite regardless of whether it's imbedded in extra dimensions? Will it expand forever or ultimately recollapse? If it does expand forever, how will this limitless future unfold? x
  • 92
    In the Beginning
    This lecture turns back the clock to almost the moment of creation—a fraction of a second after the Big Bang—and follows events as they sort themselves out, from what may have been packages of space-time foam winking in and out of existence, to conditions conducive for star and galaxy formation. x
  • 93
    The Inflationary Universe
    The remarkable large-scale uniformity and "flatness" of the Universe pose a problem for the standard Big Bang theory. A startling but powerful suggested explanation is that the Universe went through an initial period of exponential expansion, called inflation. x
  • 94
    The Ultimate Free Lunch?
    Why should inflation have occurred? Theorists have proposed several intriguing ideas, including that the Universe, whose total energy is quite possibly equal to zero, formed from a random quantum fluctuation that grew to gargantuan proportions. x
  • 95
    A Universe of Universes
    If a quantum fluctuation gave rise to our Universe, must ours be the only one? Are others possible, perhaps even with different rules? This lecture examines reasons for suspecting the existence of other universes, though we do not know how to test for their presence. x
  • 96
    Reflections on Life and the Cosmos
    The course ends on a philosophical note, with reflections on intelligent life in the cosmos and of our place in its grand structure. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the Universe is that we are able to contemplate and understand it through systematic studies. x

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DVD Includes:
  • 96 lectures on 16 DVDs
  • 552-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?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 552-page course synopsis
  • Charts, tables & diagrams
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings

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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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Also By This Professor


Understanding the Universe: An Introduction to Astronomy, 2nd Edition is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 318.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Down to Earth explanations of Galactic Events Excellent lecturer, with the explanations and examples very understandable. A good example is the explanation of the expanding universe as raisin bread dough with the raisins as the galaxies, while also explaining that a few galaxies are moving closer together such as the Milky Way and Andromeda because of their velocity vector directions .
Date published: 2020-11-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptional coverage of all aspects of our Univers 70 and retired I now delve into what I desire to know and this course meets ALL the criteria to a solid foundation of what the universe is, how it functions and the incredible complexity of it all. Most important to me is the opening of additional venues of knowledge (have already ordered and obtained additional courses in quantum physics and astronomy due to this course's covering of those subjects). Sincerely believe that this is a course well deserved to be studied by anyone who loves the knowledge of "why this" or "I wonder" - outstanding presentations and love of the subject.
Date published: 2020-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant course - superb presentation This is the longest course I have watched all the way through and it is brilliant. It is clear why Alex Fillippenko is an award winning professor.
Date published: 2020-10-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Study of the Cosmos I have watched 72 of the lectures and Professor Filippenko is an absolute wonderful instructor. I have learned so much. He does a wonderful job of explaining very complex subjects in easy to understand ways. I own 11 courses and this is by far the best. I'm very impressed
Date published: 2020-07-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof. Alex Filippenko is an excellent lector!!! Anything pertaining to Astronomy has enthralled me my entire life. I am so delighted that I got this program when I did. Can you believe 48 straight hours of coursework. Even though I am a hobbyist, I cannot get enough of this program and am only too happy to watch it as it unfolds.
Date published: 2020-07-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great professor!! Engaging lecturer. I now understand so much more about the universe than ever before. His love for both the field of astronomy and love for teaching makes for an ease of learning.
Date published: 2020-07-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Needs an Update, But Don't Let That Turn You Off Yes, Professor Filippenko lectures with a goofy grin. Yes, his hairstyle is pure 17-year-old-in-1975. Yes, he laughs at his own jokes. No, they aren't funny. So what? Before I go further, a warning. If your interest in astronomy is pretty much limited to cool stuff to see with telescopes, binoculars and the naked eye -- the moon, planets, stars, galaxies, nebulae -- that's not this course. What you want is Edward M. Murphy's "Our Night Sky." This is a full-on couse in astronomy: what we know about the solar system, our galaxy, and the universe, and how we know it. Every base is covered: red giants, white dwarfs, black holes; dark matter and dark energy; quasars and pulsars; the Big Bang and relativity; exoplanets and double stars; novae and supernovae; gravity and red shifts and wave-particle duality; how galaxies form and how they die, space travel and life in the universe, and much more. Some reviewers complain that Prof. Filippenko fails to make astronomy "understandable." Having taken (as electives) every astronomy course my university offered, I disagree. Yes, even I found myself blinking awkwardly at one too many omega-sub-M or V-sub-theta equations. But the fact is that astronomy is a science necessarily heavy with math, physics, subatomic theory, chemistry and even biology. Wanting your astronomy without equations is like wanting to learn music with no sound. And Professor Filippenko, in my opinion, does an excellent job of making difficult concepts understandable. He uses balloons, balls, and who knows how many props to illustrate problems in three- (or more) dimensional space. He likes to collect t-shirts with science jokes on them, and he shares many of these to help the student understand or better remember the principle at hand. The biggest drawback to this course is that even this 2nd edition was made in 2007. So much has happened in astronomy since then. We've seen a flyby of Pluto. We've photographed the evidence of a black hole. Our understanding of exoplanets has exploded. It's time the Great Courses brought Prof. Filippenko back into the studio for some updates and a 3rd edition. But even with that, here's the most remarkable thing about this course, as far as I am concerned. If you make it through all 96 lectures, and if you (at least mostly) understand each one, you will be grounded in everything you need to know to pretty much breeze your way through a four-year degree in astronomy. I've never seen one course so thoroughly cover a difficult topic... and make it so accessible.
Date published: 2020-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful course What made this course so great was the lecturer. I thought his simplified examples to explain complex theories really allowed me to better understand the more complex subject areas. Also, his enthusiasm on the subject was contagious. While a few people may not appreciated his somewhat corny jokes, I thought this added to the course and made him more human instead of coming across as a pompous expert. Thought that for being produced in 2007, the graphics were excellent and a lot of thought when into this part of the series. I only wish there was a more current version, i.e. 3, perhaps with somewhat less lectures, updated to what is now known/believed and even more current graphics. Bottom line, if you are willing to spend 48 hours, taking this course, highly recommend this for everyone.
Date published: 2020-04-08
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