The 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
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
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.
When I was in college one of the two or three best courses I took in my entire college career was Greek Tragedy. It was taught by Dr. Robert Palmer, an old-school classicist. It is not a course I will forget.
That was some forty-five years ago, however, so I figured I was due for a review. This course filled the bill. This version of Greek Tragedy is one of the “older” Great Courses, published in 2000, and as such is not so graphics-intensive as some of the more recent offerings. That made it great for listening to on my walks.
Professor Vandiver is a first-class lecturer. Her lectures are clear and easy to listen to. She not only covers the literary aspect, but also discusses the staging of the various surviving plays. She clearly distinguishes between where the author drew from the original myth and where he (always “he,” sorry) embellished, added, or modified the myth we know from other sources.
Older does not mean inferior. The course was thoroughly enjoyable.
Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization
Amanda H. Podany, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
Audio download $34.95 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back– the sale price will come around again
This was a most enjoyable course.
I was familiar with some of the material, but I learned a lot. One of the things that Professor Podany made clear was that while we often think of Mesopotamia in terms of the great empires, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, for much of its history Mesopotamia was made up of multiple kingdoms and city-states.
One of the great things about this region in ancient history is the amount of written evidence that we have. The decipherment of the cuneiform script in the nineteenth century provided a wealth of information. Writing was done on clay tablets. Those clay tablets were either intentionally preserved by firing in kilns or accidentally preserved when a city was destroyed by fire.
There is a lot of boring administrative material, but also many other types of documents. We have legal documents such as court records, letters between kings, and even letters from the daughters of kings who were married off to peer or client kings.
Professor Podany’s presentation is engaging and her British accent is a delight to listen to. If the material interests you, you will love this course.
I recently wrote about The Great Courses lecture series on Athenian democracy. There is a lot of interesting material in this course. I wrote in my review that Athenian democracy came at the cost of maintaining a slave society. There were other costs to Athenian culture as well.
We are all aware of the marvelous culture we have inherited from Athens, including the architecture, sculpture, and drama. However, the great creations of the golden age of Pericles were funded by the Athenian empire in which client states paid tribute to Athens for military protection. And Pericles himself only held the role of general. He never had an official position in the actual governing body of Athens. His influence held sway nonetheless.
Athens paid for its arrogance, its hubris, when the client states got tired of the financial burden and turned against Athens. The result was, of course, the Peloponnesian war which dragged on for years and which Athens eventually lost.
History is a complex thing.
Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages
Professor Robert Garland, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
Audio download $34.95 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back– the sale price will come around again
I have listened to other courses by Robert Garland and have always enjoyed them. This particular course was especially good.
The material is not new to me. I was a classics major in college, meaning that I studied the Latin and Greek languages as well as Greek and Roman history, literature, art, and culture. Still, it’s always fun to review and there is always the opportunity to learn something new or discover a different perspective.
Athenian democracy was truly a democracy as far as it went. All free males in Athens were expected to take part in the governance of the state. There were a variety of roles to fill and everyone took his turn. Of course, this represented only a small portion of the total population. Women were excluded as were slaves. And it was a slave-based society that allowed the free men to have their democracy.
Of course the democracy wasn’t seamless and there were times when tyranny or oligarchy ruled the day. Still, overall Athens had a strong track record of democracy until the Macedonians put an end to it.
This course was recorded in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election and is heavily influenced by the result. Garland is no fan of the winner of that election. While the lecture series from the Great Courses are designed to be mostly evergreen, and the bulk of this course which focuses on the ancient world will be as well, it will be interesting to see how those parts referring to the election and its aftermath hold up after a couple of additional election cycles.
Nonetheless, if you are interested in the ancient world and its history and governance I can highly recommend this course.
I recently wrote about listening to an Open Yale course from iTunes on the New Testament. While the production values of iTunes U classes are not as polished as those for The Great Courses, they are interesting because you get to hear recordings of actual classroom sessions.
When I was in college we didn’t have computers. Well, we had one DEC System 10 mainframe for all of the Claremont colleges that sat in basement of Scott Hall at Pitzer College. You could get access to it by going to a computer room on one of the campuses that had three or four terminals and you could either play one of a few games or do some basic programming if you had those skills. Few of us did much with that.
Today having a laptop is essential to academic life on campus. The professor spoke at the beginning of the course about access to course materials on the server. At the end of the course he stated that the final exam could be emailed to one’s teaching fellow.
Some things, perhaps, don’t change. Like students being lazy. At one point the professor said that he could tell that many of the students hadn’t downloaded and read a certain document that he was lecturing on by the blank looks on their faces.
The technology has certainly changed. Student attitudes, even at Yale, seem to have not.
It has been a long time since I have listened to an iTunes U course, and much as changed in that time. iTunes U is no longer available on iTunes for the PC. For mobile devices it is a separate app and not part of iTunes. It appears to me that the number of available courses has been greatly reduced.
Compared to The Great Courses the production values on iTunes U courses are inferior. That’s because they are recordings of actual classroom lectures. In the case of this course recording quality varied across lectures.
Nonetheless, Introduction to New Testament History and Literature was quite enjoyable. I was familiar with much of the material, but it reinforced some of what I knew and also provided me with new material. The most interesting aspect of this course was the emphasis on the diversity of Christianity in the New testament period. Even within a single book, Acts, for example, different Christianities emerge, such as whether gentile converts need to be circumcised or not. Similarly, the later letters purported to be written Paul have a very different theology from the authentic letters. While the author of Revelation is virulently anti-Roman rule, some of the later epistles preach accommodation.
It was interesting stuff, all of it.
Jennifer Paxton is one of the most engaging lecturers at The Great Courses and the subject matter for this course is fascinating.
Paxton starts out by telling us that many of the conceptions that scholarship has had about the Celts have been proven wrong in recent years. She spends a good deal of time setting us straight. For example there was long a belief that the Celts of mainland Europe, the Gauls of Julius Caesar for example, were related to the Celts of Ireland and Scotland. Later evidence, including what we have learned from genetics, tells us that the peoples are not related. Paxton demonstrates that common culture and art does not necessarily mean a racial or genetic relationship.
Paxton busts other myths as well. She tells us that Celtic Christianity wasn’t that much different from mainline Christianity. She says that Sir William Wallace (of Bravehart fame) and his men would never have worn blue paint on their faces. She even disappoints aficionados of Scottish festivals by explaining that tartans originally varied by geographic region and not by clan. Assigning a specific tartan to a particular clan is only a couple of hundred years old and was a result of the Celtic revival of the nineteenth century.
If such material interests you, you will likely love this course. You might consider a video version, as I’m sure I missed a lot with respect to art and visual depictions of geographical locations.