Understanding the Periodic Table

Understanding the Periodic Table cover Understanding the Periodic Table
Ron B. Davis Jr., PhD
Georgetown University
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Chemistry was not my favorite subject in high school; I was much more focused on English and social studies. I didn’t like science subjects all that much. Then there was the fact that my chemsitry teacher was late in his career and seemed to be dealing with a case of burnout. I think he took his full complement of sick days, so we often had a substitute. He was also in charge of A/V at the school, which he seemed to be more enthusiastic about than teaching chemistry. That meant that when he was out we often watched films (of the old 16 mm type), whether or not they were related to chemistry, or even to science.

I managed to complete four years at Pitzer College without taking a single science course. (This was back in the olden days when Pitzer did not have any general education requirements.) Still, as an adult I was interested in science topics, and certainly watched plenty of science programs on the local PBS station wherever I lived. Similarly, I have watched or listened to plenty of science courses from The Great Courses. After finishing twenty-four lectures on Norse Mythology I was looking for something completely different (right Monty Python?) so I selected Understanding the Periodic Table, which The Great Courses and Wondrium were touting as one of their new releases.

I can’t say that this was the most captivating course I have watched, but I did learn a few things. I finally got it down that an isotope is an atom with a different number of neutrons than the most common form, and an ion is an atom with a different number of electrons than the most common form. I learned that there are many elements that don’t exist in their pure state but have to be extracted from the compounds in which they exist by using heat or a chemical means. I learned that allotropes are different configurations of the same element. For example, there are different allotropes of tin, some of which are stable and others of which disintegrate quickly. Graphite (pencil lead) and diamonds are different allotropes of carbon. And I came across elements I hadn’t heard of before, for example hafnium and osmium.

Professor Davis has a tendency to anthropomorphize the elements. He says that hydrogen wants to bond with other elements. Or that elements want to form octets, that is a molecule with eight electrons in the outer shell. It’s an interesting perspective.

The periodic table is larger today than it was during my junior year of high school. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) finalized today’s table in 2016, taking us up to element 118, oganesson. The PDF version of the course guidebook sacrifices a lecture-by-lecture outline of the course, as is found in most Great Courses lecture series, but instead provides us with an interactive periodic table. When you click on an element the guidebook takes you to a description of that element. Pretty cool.

If such things interest you, this is a course well worth watching.

Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology coverNorse Mythology
Jackson Crawford, PhD
University of Colorado, Boulder
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Jackson Crawford offers an interesting and in-depth discussion of Norse mythology in this twenty-four lecture course. He discusses the sources we have and explains how, although they were written down after Scandinavia became Christian, the stories are pagan in their origin. He primarily draws from two sources: the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. Both were originally written in the 1200s.

Crawford discusses the two main families of gods, which he refers to as the gods and the anti-gods. The latter group is often translated as giants, but Crawford states that is somewhat misleading as they were for the most part equal, it simply being that one group was “good” and another “bad.” Even that is not clear cut, as amongst the gods many of them had one parent who was an anti-god.

He discusses Odin vs. Thor and explains that even though Odin was the head of the gods, Thor was by far more popular. This is because Thor was representative of the common person while Odin represented the aristocracy. Crawford is careful to point out how popular culture has embellished and altered the original myths. For example, sources such as the Marvel Universe have shaped Loki into a devious trickster. While Loki did in fact cause a good deal of chaos and disruption, he wasn’t especially devious. It was just that in the “dream logic” of myth, as Crawford calls it, people just go off and do things without thinking them through.

In addition to discussing the gods, Crawford spends a lot of time describing the legends of human heroes, some of which were very detailed and complicated, with lots of murder and betrayal. Of course, the gods involve themselves with the humans. Odin was said to have given up one eye in order to obtain wisdom, so when an old man with one eye shows up in a story we know who that is.

Crawford clarifies just who the Valkyries were, Richard Wagner having greatly distorted the original story. They were human women who were given supernatural powers, including the ability to fly. Their sole role was to carry fallen warriors to Valhalla for Odin. If one got married or otherwise gave up her role, she lost her powers. Though the Valkyries were human, their leader was the goddess Freyja. Crawford notes women played a much more active role in Norse mythology than they did in other medieval literature, such as the Arthurian cycle. There are even legends of shieldmaidens, human women who became warriors. We have no evidence for such women in Viking history, but they show up in legend.

There is a strong sense in Norse mythology that both gods and humans are subject to fate. Early in the cycle a seer tells Odin how the world will end, in a battle called Ragnarok, essentially meaning “the fates of the gods.” In fact, Valhalla was not some glorious paradise, but where fallen warriors prepared for that last, hopeless, preordained battle. This is why characters in these stories routinely walked into futile situations. They knew it was fate and they had no ability to avoid it.

As grim as much of it is, there is some fascinating stuff here and Jackson Crawford maintains a high standard of scholarship in presenting this material.

The Big Bang and Beyond

The Big Bang and Beyond coverThe Big Bang and Beyond: Exploring the Early Universe
Gary Felder, PhD
Smith College
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The experience of watching this course was rather odd. First, it was taped when the COVID protocols at the Great Courses had the instructors sitting instead of standing, and always looking at one camera rather than turning from one camera to the other. Second, instructor Gary Felder has a rather odd demeanor. His quiet, measured tone projects the more of an image of Buddhist meditation instructor than a cosmologist.

But a cosmologist he is, and there is a lot of good material here. Felder goes through the basics of the big bang theory, describing the various phases of the process. The formation of the first stars, and after that the planets, solar systems, and galaxies, did not occur right away. That happened sometime between thirty million and two hundred million years after the big bang. And Felder tells us the big bang was not an explosion but simply the moment the universe started expanding. Cosmologists call this moment Planck Density, “the earliest moment we can describe with our currently known laws of physics.”

Felder explains the original theory of the big bang was pretty much accepted once Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). Before that a few cosmologists, most notably Fred Hoyle, believed the universe was a fixed, stable entity, what Hoyle and colleagues called the steady state theory. But although most scientists believed the CMB was sufficient proof of the big bang, there were several phenomena that the theory failed to account for. This is where the theory of inflation arose. Inflation posits that distances in the universe increased by a huge amount, perhaps 101,000,000 (that’s ten to the one million) in a fraction of a second. This explains many of the inconsistencies found in the original theory. I won’t go into them here, but Felder describes them in detail.

There are some theories that say just because the big bang happened as it did in our observable universe, it did not necessarily happen that way in the whole universe. There might be multiverses these theories say. That’s where cosmologists draw from quantum mechanics.

An open question is whether the universe will expand forever or stop expanding and collapse back into itself. That depends on the critical density of the universe. It turns out that the universe is so close to that critical density that we don’t know. At least that was the case until the discovery of dark energy. With dark energy in place the universe will expand forever. Unless dark energy decays. Then maybe it won’t.

Confusing, yes. But Gary Felder helps make all of this clear in his twelve lecture series.

Understanding Greek and Roman Technology

Greek and Roman Technology coverUnderstanding Greek and Roman Technology
Stephen Ressler, PhD
United States Military Academy, West Point
Instant video $50.00 when on sale at The Great Courses
If the course is not on sale, check back – the sale price will come around again
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

One advantage of having a Wondrium subscription is that I don’t have to weigh whether I think it’s worth the investment to buy a course. I can simply start watching and if I don’t like the course I can remove it from my watch list and move on to something else.

So when I finished my previous course I turned to Understanding Greek and Roman Technology, not sure what to expect, especially since the instructor is from West Point. I need not have been concerned. Despite his affiliation, Professor Ressler does not at all give off a military aura. He is very pleasant and low key in his presentation.

Even though I was a classics major at Pitzer College, studying the Greek and Latin languages and Greek and Roman history and culture, I learned a lot from this course. Dr. Ressler covers the breadth of Greek and Roman technology. He discusses architecture, urban planning, water supply systems, roads and bridges, transportation, construction, military technology, and shipbuilding. He goes into detail about construction techniques and shows how sophisticated planners and builders in the ancient world were in the process of design and execution.

This is perhaps the most ambitious Great Courses lecture series that I have watched. Ressler does not just lecture: he demonstrates with models that he has built. He shows how ancient technology works with models of buildings, roads, military apparatus such as catapults and battering rams, water supply systems, and ships. Ressler pours concrete, runs water, demonstrates road building with dirt and stones, and uses bricks for a variety of demonstrations. He even shoots an arrow and ejects a ping-pong ball with a model of a catapult. I don’t suppose that the Great Courses studio has taken such a beating before or since.

This is an interesting and entertaining course. And never before have I seen outtakes during the credits after the final lecture of a Great Courses series. Excellent stuff.

Written Communications

Written CommunicationsWritten Communications: Being Heard and Understood
Allison Friederichs, PhD
University of Denver, University College
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The advantage of having a Wondrium subscription is that I don’t have to consider whether or not a given course is worth buying. I can simply start streaming the course and see how I like it. With Written Communications: Being Heard and Understood, the course description intrigued me. At the same time, the title of the first lecture put me off: “Impactful Writing.” Impactful? Really? But then the Merriam-Webster Unabridged online dictionary lists the word with no qualification. There is no notation such as “nonstandard” or “informal.” So I forged ahead.

The course was, in fact, very useful. The focus of the course is on business writing, but much of the content is applicable no matter what kind of writing you are doing. Despite her use of the word “impactful” (which she uses often) and despite her charming, witty (I’m tempted to say perky) demeanor, Allison Friederichs is old school and no-nonsense when it comes to grammar and usage. She comes down firmly against the singular “they,” only offering a sort of footnote at the end of the discussion, acknowledging that the usage is becoming accepted in many circles. She favors, as you would expect, the Oxford comma.

Friederichs offers a structured approach to composing any sort of document (email included, she emphasizes). She calls the method ACE: analyze, craft, and edit. Friederichs devotes a half-hour lecture to each step. The middle step, in her view, is the least important and your time should be spent on planning the document and editing your original draft. She discusses the importance of word choice and talks about writing in such a way to maintain a positive relationship with your correspondents.

I thought the final lecture, which was on email, might be less useful than the other lectures. It turned out to have some very practical advice. For example, regarding email attachments Friederichs suggests first adding the attachment, then writing the email, and finally completing to TO: field. That eliminates those follow-up “oops” emails resulting from forgotten attachments.

The lectures on punctuation and grammar provide an excellent review even if you are familiar with the material, and the ACE process for writing is worth taking a careful look at. This is a practical course with material that one can apply to any sort of writing.


You are no doubt aware of my fondness for The Great Courses. For many years I listened to the audio versions of the courses while walking, first on my iPod then on my iPhone. I punctuated these with the occasional DVD set. In the new world of streaming I shifted my focus to that medium. All of it entertaining and educational.

The folks at The Great Courses have done a good job of keeping up with technology and have for a while had a streaming subscription service called The Great Courses Plus. They recently rebranded it as Wondrium, and along with the traditional Great Courses lecture series they offer additional content, including documentaries and other material.

Wondrium logoSince I’m a long-time Great Courses customer they had been pestering me to subscribe to Wonderium. Recently they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was for an annual subscription at an attractively discounted price. I took the bait.

I’m glad I did. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been binge watching, but I’ve been doing a lot of watching. I saw a series on the Medici that was fascinating, but which I probably wouldn’t have bought outright. Similarly, I enjoyed a series on self-editing which was focused on fiction. I don’t write fiction so I would not have purchased it, but as part of the subscription it was worth my time. A lecture series on genetics and how people respond to seeing their genetic ancestry results was enlightening. I am currently enjoying the video version of a lecture series I listened to on audio a few years back about the world of the Old Testament. The visual enhancement is nice. And a series I am also watching now about effective written communication is great stuff. It will likely merit its own review here.

Wondrium allows subscribers to download the course guidebook, just as you can when you purchase a set. The only downside compared to purchasing a class from The Great Courses is that if you were to let your subscription lapse you would no longer have access return to a course you had previously watched.

That’s a minor matter compared to the advantages of a Wondrium subscription.

English Grammar Boot Camp (revisited)

English Grammar Boot Camp coverEnglish Grammar Boot Camp
Anne Curzan, PhD
University of Michigan
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The Great Courses released this lecture series in 2016 and I had great things to say about it at the time. I thought this would be a good time to revisit it.

Much has changed in five years. Curzan was then a member of the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, which was for decades my favorite dictionary. Sadly, as I wrote, the usage panel no longer exists and the dictionary is now frozen in time. I now go to Merriam-Webster for my dictionary inquiries. The Chronicle of Higher Education shut down Lingua Franca, the great language blog to which she refers. On the upside, the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which tracks the use of words and phrases over time, now goes up to the year 2019, and not just to 2008 as it did in 2016. And professor Curzan herself? She is now dean of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan.

The passage of time and all these changes notwithstanding, the course holds up nicely five years later. Curzan tells us it is all right to split an infinitive and to end a sentence with a preposition. She says that while it is best to use the active voice in most cases, sometimes flow or style might mean that the passive is more appropriate. There are a couple of things that she emphasizes repeatedly. Curzan tells us that while a certain construction might not be wrong, its use may be jarring to an intended audience and distract them from your message. Or it may simply cause them to view your writing skills negatively. (Depending on your audience, any of the three usage styles mentioned above might be examples.) Curzan also talks about the importance of consistency. Style guides disagree, so she tells us to select one approach and use it consistently.

Curzan does not take a strong stand on the Oxford comma (or serial comma as it is sometimes known). She tells us she prefers it but does not insist on it. Simply be consistent, she says. Personally, I am a big fan of the Oxford comma, as is the Chicago Manual of Style, my preferred style guide. I believe it helps to reduce ambiguity. My favorite example of ambiguity caused by the missing final comma is a book dedication, probably apocryphal (I hate to say): “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Curzan is both a linguist and a professor of English, so she offers a balanced approach to grammar and usage. As a linguist, she also provides a lot of historical background and shows us that certain constructions which we might view as recent and incorrect have been around for centuries. For example, Curzan tells us that Shakespeare used both singular they (which Chicago now accepts) and double negatives (Celia in As You Like It: “I cannot go no further.”). The Bard even uses the subject form of a pronoun where we would expect to see the object: “Yes, you have seen Cassio, and she together.” That’s not to say that we should be doing so in formal writing today.

The course title is misleading. This series is both fun and informative. In fact, of all the Great Courses series that I have purchased, and that number now exceeds one hundred, it is the only one for which I have purchased the full course transcript (as opposed to the guidebook that comes with the course).

If you are a grammar or language nerd you will find English Grammar Boot Camp well worth your time.

Two Video Courses on Physics

Don Lincoln CoursesThe Evidence for Modern Physics: How We Know What We Know (2021)
The Theory of Everything: The Quest to Explain All Reality (2017)
Don Lincoln, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab)
streaming video purchased as a set on sale for $97.90

I’m not sure what motivated me to buy this set. There is a lot of duplication in these two video courses. They do take different approaches, however. The newer course is a general overview of physics and focuses on how we know what we know, as the subtitle indicates. Dr. Lincoln focuses the older course on the quest for a “theory of everything” in physics, and he describes what we know and where the gaps in our knowledge are.

Both courses discuss the classical physics of Isaac Newton, Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, subatomic particles, the big bang, gravitational waves, and what we know and don’t know about dark matter and dark energy. Lincoln does a good job of making complex concepts clear, although there is a lot more math in the older course than there is in the new one.

The older course offers a lot more in the way of graphics and enhanced production values. In that course Lincoln changes his position and looks at the two different cameras. In the new course he is always looking at the same spot, though there are two camera angles. I attribute all of this to the fact that the second course was obviously taped during the pandemic, with its staffing and social distancing limitations. In Evidence For Dr. Lincoln gets tickled by his lame attempts at humor just a little too often, something that occurs far less frequently in The Theory of Everything.

This is all fascinating stuff, and I enjoy learning about quantum mechanics from different experts in the field, as you may have noticed from my Kindle and audio book reviews. In this case, however, the two courses are too similar for me to recommend both. There have been no major breakthroughs in quantum mechanics since 2017, but of the two I’d recommend The Evidence for Modern Physics, despite the couple of drawbacks I’ve mentioned. On the other hand, if you find that the older course on sale and that the new one isn’t, the go for The Theory of Everything.

The World’s Greatest Churches

The Worlds Greatest Churches coverThe World’s Greatest Churches
Professor William R. Cook
State University of New York at Geneseo
Instant video $35.00 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back – the sale price will come around again

William R. Cook is one of my favorite Great Courses professors. I have taken several of his courses, both audio and video. In fact, I think his series The Cathedral is my very favorite of all the Great Courses I have watched or listened to (and that’s a lot: nearly 80, I believe).

The World’s Greatest Churches ranks right up there with The Cathedral for being interesting, informative, and visually captivating. In twenty-four half hour sessions Cook visits churches of all denominations around the world. What’s impressive is that he visited most, if not all, of these churches in person and took most of the photos we see himself.

The variety is amazing. We see famous churches in the East, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the former Constantinople (later a mosque and now a museum). In the West we visit Chartres and Winchester cathedrals along with St. Peter’s Basilica. But at the same time I was treated to churches with which I was not familiar: the cave churches of Cappadocia, the churches of Armenia and Georgia (the country that lies between Russia and Turkey, not the state in the U.S.), and the simple, wooden stave churches of Norway. Nor does Cook omit modern churches He shows us an impressive church in Iceland called the Hallgrímskirkja, and two modern churches in Korea, one Catholic and one Presbyterian.

Professor Cook is a practicing Catholic, but he has the utmost respect not only for other Christian denominations, but for other religions as well. As a Great Courses veteran he is an excellent lecturer and he keeps each lecture fascinating and lively.

A History of European Art

History of European Art coverA History of European Art
William Kloss, M.A.
Independent Art Historian
Instant video purchased on sale at $69.95
If the course is not on sale, check back. A sale price will come around again.

This is a very long course at forty-eight lectures. Most Great Courses packages are twenty-four or thirty-six lectures. But then it covers a lot of territory. The survey begins with Carolingian and Ottonian art in the late Middle Ages and goes all the way through to art in the twentieth century between the two world wars.

There was a lot of interesting material in this course. It was amazing to learn how much art moved around. Works that were designed as altarpieces were taken down and moved elsewhere, sometimes simply to the museum on the site of the church, sometimes to another country. If the altarpiece was made of multiple panels it was often cut up into its separate components.

I had learned bits and pieces about European art here and there, but I’ve never taken a comprehensive course. I had never thought about how much of late medieval and Renaissance art was on one of two themes: either classical history and mythology or biblical material. I noticed that the art in that period bore a stronger resemblance to the physical world than that beginning in the late nineteenth century with the advent of impressionism. The subject matter also changes as artists began to paint based on their own inner ideas rather than on commonly known topics. As Professor Kloss says, “We have left the world of shared meaning behind.”

Kloss is knowledgeable but has an odd manner of presentation. He almost never looks at the camera, but looks at his notes or computer monitor, or seems to peer off into the middle distance. Nonetheless, he knows his stuff and is well qualified to present this engaging material.