Online Physics Class Taught By Brian GreeneMarch 11, 2014 2:07 PM   Subscribe

Brian Greene is now offering an online course on the theory of relativity. There are two versions of the class, one with math and one without. Additional information was provided during Greene's recent Ask Me Anything on reddit, during which he agrees with a redditor who recommends Leonard Susskind's "Theoretical Minimum"(previously) as a good preliminary.
posted by Ipsifendus (43 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite

I'm not sure what "World Science U certification" means, but it sounds like something that would be fascinating to do for its own sake!
posted by Kevin Street at 2:18 PM on March 11, 2014

From the AMA:

Q: Do we have free will? Can we measure it?

A: Tough question of course. But as I don't think there's free will, I'm compelled to answer it.

Clearly, there's much about reality we don't understand. But based on the current laws of physics, there's just no room for human intervention, no room for what we usually call "free will". We are all collections of particles that fully play by the rules of physics. There's no place that we can step in and change the course of how those particles -- you and I -- evolve. The SENSATION of free will is real, of course. But that's all it is--a sensation.

I had a knee jerk reaction of dismissing this but then thought about it some more and now I'm troubled. Really fascinating idea.

If anyone has any reading to recommend on the topic I'd be interested.
posted by Riton at 2:21 PM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Riton: Check out this Mefi thread on the Conway-Kochen "Free Will Theorem" (yes, THAT Conway). He believes that free will exists, which is good enough for me. (But of course I'd say that, as I am predestined to believe in free will!)

http://www.metafilter.com/137160/Thats-why-it-doesnt-matter-if-God-plays-dice-with-the-Universe

posted by crazy_yeti at 2:31 PM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's no place that we can step in and change the course of how those particles -- you and I -- evolve

I disagree that this is even a scientific question. For one thing, the study of causality is not a scientific field, so science really doesn't have a whole lot to offer us when it comes to questions relating to causality. Statistics may offer useful leads here, but not the physical sciences.

There's no place we can step in and change how binary code processes; higher level language features and user interfaces don't even exist or have direct, simple analogs in the underlying code they're made of . And yet, we can maximize and minimize desktop windows all day and even someone without a hint of understanding of how the underlying code works can demonstrate the existence of desktop windows from a functional perspective. Mr. Greene is mistaken about the nature of the question of free will. But he's doing great work in promoting public science literacy all the same, despite not being able to resist the urge to overgeneralize from his own domain of expertise to the broader world of overlapping domains we actually live in.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:31 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

science really doesn't have a whole lot to offer us when it comes to questions relating to causality

Of course it does
posted by jpdoane at 2:34 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh. So this isn't the dude from 90210.
posted by hal_c_on at 2:39 PM on March 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Just to head off a derail on a great post: anyone interested in discussing whether Free Will is a Thing merely needs to define exactly what Free Will is first.
posted by Riemann at 2:40 PM on March 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

as I don't think there's free will, I'm compelled to answer it.

If you don't believe in free will wouldn't you believe that you are compelled to do everything?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 2:41 PM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

There are two versions of the class, one with math and one without.

I can basically grok the concepts behind relativity, but the math is why I never studied it seriously, or even semi-seriously. I'm essentially math-disabled. I just might sign-up for the no-math class. Thanks!
posted by Thorzdad at 2:42 PM on March 11, 2014

A more serious discussion of free will can be found over in these parts of MetaFilter.
posted by Llama-Lime at 2:44 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Decisions" are nothing but tricks of brain chemistry, man.
posted by crashlanding at 2:45 PM on March 11, 2014

also, just a warning about the no-math version: it's good stuff but remember that what you are getting is an approximation. The math is what is "real" about relativity. Anything else is just analogies and sort-of-likes. Which is great stuff. But there is an unfortunate tendency for people to start thinking the analogies (rather than the math) are the theory and to start making unfounded assumptions based on them.
posted by Riemann at 2:45 PM on March 11, 2014 [9 favorites]

> anyone interested in discussing whether Free Will is a Thing merely needs to define exactly what Free Will is first.
posted by Riemann

posted by benito.strauss at 2:56 PM on March 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

A more serious discussion of free will can be found over in these parts of MetaFilter.

remember that what you are getting is an approximation

Whatever, it's all relative.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 2:56 PM on March 11, 2014

I'm dumb as a rock, but I've managed to cobble together an incredibly limited familiarity with some basic physics terms via Simple English Wikipedia (some favorite articles: particle physics, quantum mechanics, universe) -- the no-math version of World Science U seems right up my alley, huzzah! And Mr. Greene seems to be an all-around awesome dude, just the right kind of person that can bridge gaps in popularizing science education: brilliant, thoughtful, nuanced, and considerate of the many ways that observable reality and extant beliefs can bump up against each other but still manage to coexist.

From a 2011 interview with The Oxonian Review:
What science is pretty good at ruling out is the so-called "God of the gaps"—the traditional way of invoking God whenever there's something in science that we haven't figured out. The problem is, once we figure it out, that particular invocation of God is no longer necessary; it gets pushed to the side. So that's a recipe for God getting squeezed to the margins. But if you don't view God as the reservoir of temporary answers to issues we haven't solved scientifically, but rather as some overarching structure within which science takes place, and if that makes you happy and satisfied, so be it. I don't see the need for that; others do.
And a 2003 Q&A with NOVA:
Do you think there are limits to how much we can know about the universe?

I don't know. I'd like to think that there aren't, but I suspect that's a little optimistic. An analogy that's used in the NOVA program that I'm quite fond of is: We are certainly aware of intelligent beings on this planet whose capacity to understand the deep laws of the universe is limited. No matter how hard you try to teach your cat general relativity, you're going to fail. There we have an example of an intelligent living being that will never know this kind of truth about the way the world is put together. Why in the world should we be any different? We can certainly go further than cats, but why should it be that our brains are somehow so suited to the universe that our brains will be able to understand the deepest workings?
posted by divined by radio at 2:56 PM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

No, science assumes causality. Questions about what causality is are by definition metaphysical (not in the airy new age sense, but in the traditional philosophical sense). Causality is a philosophy of science question that relates to the interpretation of facts, not factual content.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:58 PM on March 11, 2014

But this is a side discussion that would require whole libraries to do justice to, so I'll leave the derail aside and just say: "whoo-hoo! neat resource."
posted by saulgoodman at 2:59 PM on March 11, 2014

This causality you describe sounds like the work of traditional philosophers who were made obsolete once the math of physics led to descriptions of the physical world that are completely unintuitive.
posted by crashlanding at 3:02 PM on March 11, 2014

You're iignoring the fact that the very foundations of discursive reasoning have been proven to lack logical rigor, and that science only works by making certain intellectual assumptions that are themselves not the objects of scientific inquiry. But feel free to do that and be very dogmatic about it, if that's your thing.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:06 PM on March 11, 2014

Holy Metaphysical Derail, Batman! Do we really need to caveat every scientific discussion with the fact that science is a human inquiry, can't investigate itself, yadda yadda yadda?

As someone interested in both science and philosophy of science, I hope not.

Scientists are allowed to hold beliefs that are not currently scientifically testable. It shouldn't be surprising that they do.
posted by muddgirl at 3:10 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

The idea that one event, in the abstract, can cause another is not something that can be demonstrated by any unambiguous test, and that's been amply demonstrated by others whose business it is to investigate such questions, so I'll just leave it to you and those other folks to sort this out between you. You can keep that stress for yourself if you want it, but I don't see anything to be gained either way.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:10 PM on March 11, 2014

Agreed. Yay relativity!
posted by saulgoodman at 3:11 PM on March 11, 2014

Special relativity is fun and easy. Our undergrad professor wrote a very approachable book on it featuring a rhinoceros. Looking for it online just now, I was disappointed that the rhino is no longer on the cover.
posted by exogenous at 3:12 PM on March 11, 2014

No, science assumes causality.

Yes! I think people tend to very badly confuse science and philosophy. To do science, you do not first prove that the external world is real, that we know the future will resemble the past, and so on. You assume these things. There is no "scientific" proof of these things.
posted by thelonius at 3:14 PM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

anyone interested in discussing whether Free Will is a Thing merely needs to define exactly what Free Will is first.

Free as in speech, or free as in beer?
posted by dhartung at 3:29 PM on March 11, 2014

I think some of the above disagreement may be that causality as a scientific concept is not exactly the same thing as causality as a philosophical concept. So even though you're using the same word you aren't necessarily talking about the same thing.

What a scientist means by causality is not something that is merely assumed or taken for granted, but (to bring things back on topic a bit) is actually a direct consequence of the theory of relativity, and I'm sure that it will come up in the course.
posted by jpdoane at 3:32 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Sensation of free will", I like it, (well hate it emotionally) but had not heard it phrased just that way. Some folks pull in quantum dynamics or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to show that god or at least we can roll the dice and have free will. But those fields of science discuss what we can and can not know, not if a photon would bounce left or right. It was always going to bounce left at that moment, but a priori we could not know.

There is certainly no practical way science could know ahead of time whether you will decide to post a scathing rebuttal to this, not only no practical but theoretically impossible to *know* no mater what super ultra super computer one could ever imagine. But it's in your atoms/elements/synapses predetermined just what you will do.
posted by sammyo at 4:25 PM on March 11, 2014

A more serious discussion of free will can be found over in these parts of MetaFilter.

I fail to see how that's "more serious" than the Kochen-Conway theorem.
posted by crazy_yeti at 4:35 PM on March 11, 2014

It's only a serious discussion to some if you basically begin from the assumption that science and free will are incompatible. And when you point out empirical evidence for conscious choice-making at the level of bounded individuals, it's somehow never rigorous enough (never mind that we accept many other more important claims every day and function on the basis of these claims with recourse to no more rigorous evidence).
posted by saulgoodman at 4:52 PM on March 11, 2014

Sorry to continue the digression from this very fine post, but I think there's something to be said about misinterpretation of the fundamental physical theories (QM and relativity) when it comes to the human scale. Most scientists (including me) have incorrectly confused "not-determined" as the equivalent of "free will." Listening to a few Daniel Dennett videos cured me of that fallacy, in that while we could define "free will" to mean "not determined," we don't find a very useful definition when dealing with humans, which is precisely where we want to use the term free will. I sort of care about elementary particles having or not having "free will" in a wouldn't-that-be-interesting sort of way but it's kind of beside the point, and somebody is going to have to show me one charming motherfucking quark before I believe it has free will. So in essence, the Kochen-Conway definition of "free will" is not one that is useful in terms of thinking about humans or intelligent agents in general. It does say something interesting about the behavior of the universe, but I don't think it says what many people purport it to.

This is a recurring theme for me and fundamental physics, I find the physics fascinating, but it's only of marginal use at other scales. In contrast, Physics 101 is an essential tool in all aspects of life for me, I use it everyday to reason about my environment, and even paper-napkin it once in a while to make decisions. And there are some mathematical tools that were developed for or fleshed out in certain arcane parts of physics that have translated to other areas of science and I've found useful. It's fun to know first principles, but first principles don't go very far. I'm not going to win at the stock market because I've got the mass of an electron to 9 digits, or because the standard model turns out to have been correct. For the human scale world, descriptive wins over first-principles almost every time. And even on atomic scales, I'm not going to be able to calculate the orbitals of hydrogen on a good day, much less what's going on in a simple protein. But I will enjoy a beautiful Hamiltonian, thanks.
posted by Llama-Lime at 5:00 PM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

crazy_yeti: sorry, somehow my eyes had skipped right over your huge link up there! I didn't mean to dismiss that thread as not serious, my apologies.
posted by Llama-Lime at 5:15 PM on March 11, 2014

Oh. So this isn't the dude from 90210.

I prefer to think of his as not the dude from The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
posted by crossoverman at 8:14 PM on March 11, 2014

I read this as Brian Austin Green offering an online course on the theory of relativity and I was all set to sign up.
Why don't the original cast of 90210 do some science education work?
I'd watch.
posted by rmless at 8:57 PM on March 11, 2014

If anyone has any reading to recommend on the topic I'd be interested.

posted by phaedon at 10:19 PM on March 11, 2014

I love BG. But he assumes incompatibilism, which most philosophers reject. But he's a physicist, not a philosopher. Very few scientists have made good, or even competent, philosophers.

Someone asked for reading material. See John Fischer's The Metaphysics of Freewill. Van Inwagen has some terrific stuff on FW a bunch of places, but see first his Metaphysics.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 12:10 AM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I sort of care about elementary particles having or not having "free will"

there's just no room for human intervention, no room for what we usually call "free will".

What about randomness? There is plenty of room in physics for it.

Randomness may not be the result of a cogent "free will" but it certainly looks and acts like it.
posted by three blind mice at 4:18 AM on March 12, 2014

I can basically grok the concepts behind relativity, but the math is why I never studied it seriously, or even semi-seriously. I'm essentially math-disabled. I just might sign-up for the no-math class. Thanks!

I think it's much, much, much harder to understand higher level physics without the math. Once you get the equations, you're like "Oh, is that all it is? Why didn't they just say that?"

Translating the symbols of math into plain english is where confusion sets in.
posted by empath at 4:42 AM on March 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

What science is pretty good at ruling out is the so-called "God of the gaps"—the traditional way of invoking God whenever there's something in science that we haven't figured out. The problem is, once we figure it out, that particular invocation of God is no longer necessary; it gets pushed to the side.

This is also what led the Vatican astronomer to label literal creationism as "paganism" a few years ago. As soon as you start to insist on the literal "hand of God" creating every animal you're only a few small steps removed from a folk religion where every tree and river has its own demi-god determining its behaviour. In this view, God is "super-natural" in the most literal sense of the word, above and outside of the laws of nature.

Of course, this kind of thinking is compatible with Deism as well.

It won't surprise many Catholics to hear that this astronomer is a Jesuit.

I think it's much, much, much harder to understand higher level physics without the math. Once you get the equations, you're like "Oh, is that all it is? Why didn't they just say that?"

Agreed but I don't see a way around that. Most of the time, teaching it without the maths just gives people a fossilised, physics-facts-as-trivia view that doesn't let them do any further reasoning. That can be valuable, but I think that it inhibits the kind of cross-domain idea synthesis that makes learning physics so intellectually productive for people who are not and will not be academic physicists.

I imagine that the best way to teach that is with interactive tools that separate the mathematical ideas from the symbol manipulation aspect, but that is much easier said than done.
posted by atrazine at 5:23 AM on March 12, 2014

I'm currently taking Coursera's Statistical Physics course: (Statistical Mechanics: Algorithms and Computations), and I can't recommend it highly enough for people with a somewhat sophisticated mathematical background. There's something about rolling up the sleeves and coding an algorithm to simulate a physical phenomenon that just beats staring at equations and hand-waving analogies. I am very jealous of the current/next generation of physics/mathematics students.
posted by Omission at 5:44 AM on March 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Relativity without the maths is not going to give you a proper understanding of relativity. Especially with General Relativity.
posted by Decani at 8:40 AM on March 12, 2014

Last points on the hideous free will derail (really, either way I love Brian Greene and I love this new educational material):

It seems to me it's pretty simple: Either you believe people's beliefs and attitudes can influence their behavior, or you don't. If you do, then you either have to believe people can choose what attitudes and beliefs they hold, or you have to believe they can't. If people can't choose which beliefs and attitudes they hold, then surely this entire argument about free will is an incredible waste of time.

On the other hand, if people can choose what beliefs and attitudes they hold, and those choices can effect their behaviors, then that's all I need to be satisfied that free will is as real as it needs to be, and at least as real as a bicycle.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:10 AM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

hideous free will derail

Indeed. For some reason, the term "free will" sets my teeth on edge. Of course I do not have a better one, and I need to find a better windmill to tilt at. But it always seems to me that these free will discussions decay into people just talking past each other very quickly. That's probably the hardest thing about philosophy, actually - people using the same language to denote extremely different concepts.
posted by thelonius at 1:48 AM on March 13, 2014

Started watching these today and yesterday. They're very nice-- explained using lots of modern graphics, its a lot more accessible than the Susskind series. It's slower paced, but it still has the math, and there are some nice widgets from wolfram alpha included to experiment with the formulas.
posted by empath at 8:50 PM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

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