The Mechanical Universe on Demand
February 6, 2008 8:52 AM   Subscribe

The Mechanical Universe...and Beyond is a critically-acclaimed series of 52 thirty-minute videotape programs covering the basic topics of an introductory university physics course. This well produced and highly informative 52 episode series, hosted by David Goodstein of Caltech, is available as Video on Demand (Note: simple registration required to view videos).

This series is an excellent combination of physics history, theoretical description, mathematical formulation using computer graphics and in class demonstrations.
posted by FuturisticDragon (28 comments total) 114 users marked this as a favorite


I watched this series on PBS as a kid and was blown away by the graphics. Not just as a technical feat but also with how clear they made everything. My dad taped them at the time and copied them to CD for me a few years ago and I still get goosebumps when they derive the instantaneous velocity of a falling body for reasons I can't even explain1. The animated equations...yes.

Unfortunately my copies are pretty crappy (broadcast -> VHS + 20 years -> CD) so this is awesome news.

1Or maybe I can: I am a nerd.
posted by DU at 9:00 AM on February 6, 2008

Fantastic! Absolutely terrific. Between this and MIT's OCW (Walter Lewin's excellent and entertaining 8.01 Classical Mechanics lectures and 8.02 Electricity and Magnetism lectures, I'm continually delighted by physics and electricity. It's things like these that make me more hungry for knowledge than ever before.

Great post. THanks for turning me on to this great series.
posted by SteelyDuran at 9:07 AM on February 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

The DVD rips are available on your finer bittorrent trackers as well.

It's a darn good thing I've got more hard drives in the mail.
posted by Skorgu at 9:11 AM on February 6, 2008

On a side note: What's a good resource for learning math?
posted by SteelyDuran at 9:14 AM on February 6, 2008

1Or maybe I can: I am a nerd.

Intellectual goosebumps are a rare and beautiful thing, to be treasured indeed.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 9:19 AM on February 6, 2008

What's a good resource for learning math?

I took calculus in college but never really understood it. (I could take derivatives and find integrals and whatnot, but couldn't apply them to a problem.) Then I worked through a basic undergraduate course in physics. The example problems essentially teach you practical calculus at the same time as physics, so now I understand both much better.

If you need to learn algebra first, maybe not such a great place to start.
posted by DU at 9:22 AM on February 6, 2008

Steely: Paul's Online Math Notes is a clear, though pretty dense, run through introductory university maths.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 9:26 AM on February 6, 2008 [5 favorites]

This is great thank you so much for posting.
posted by nola at 11:11 AM on February 6, 2008

These are awesome. If only I'd known about it while I was still taking Physics :(
posted by pantsrobot at 11:26 AM on February 6, 2008

Goodstein was my freshman physics prof. I seem to recall that ours was the first class for which these materials were used in their finished form. Ah, those were the days...
posted by Slothrup at 11:32 AM on February 6, 2008

Yay! Yay! Yay!

Point of interest: Goodstein was a colleague of Feynman's in his latter days, and was surely pedagogically influenced by him.
posted by e.e. coli at 11:52 AM on February 6, 2008

Watching these as a kid led me to later realize that I benefit from a visual style of instruction. I, too, was blown away at the concision with which they were able to express complex or unintuitive ideas in physics and math.
posted by sdodd at 12:01 PM on February 6, 2008


I show these to my students regularly (I teach college physics) off of my old videotapes, taped off PBS from the late 80's, which are rapidly degrading with age. Thanks!
posted by starkeffect at 12:06 PM on February 6, 2008

Nth OMG, OMG, OMG... I watched these on the old big 12' or so satellite dishes. It managed to teach me enough to get into the Young Engineering and Science Scholars program at Caltech to study Physics for a summer. High School teacher was dumbfounded by the hats on my i,j,k and all the dx/dy stuff and made me sit in the corner most of the time. Ended up scoring second highest score ever on the Navy Nuke Test, they wanted to sign me up for sub duty. Was going to be a Physics major until I found out that the 3 volume book we did that summer was 3 semesters. Went ComSci instead.

Excellent show, and now the standard answer for any "teach me physics" questions.

You rock!
posted by zengargoyle at 1:09 PM on February 6, 2008

Sweet. These are great.
posted by fatllama at 1:25 PM on February 6, 2008

Totally sweet, first mms link in asx file is my uni. Work is wasted for a while.
posted by zengargoyle at 1:32 PM on February 6, 2008

N^m-thing OMG. Really looking forward to watching these -- but I have to wait a whole week until my (now capped) monthly bandwidth limit resets! Waaah!
posted by 5MeoCMP at 1:51 PM on February 6, 2008

Each and every one of these is packed full of history, mathematical insight, witty remarks (on behalf of Prof. Goodstein), excellent visual analogies and physical intuition -- but my favorites are:

13. Conservation of Energy

15. Conservation of Momentum

29. The Electric Field

35. The Magnetic Field

39. Maxwell's Equations

45. Temperature and Gas Laws

46. Engine of Nature

47. Entropy
posted by FuturisticDragon at 1:57 PM on February 6, 2008

In about 1987, I went on a tour of JPL (with my high school Math Club!) and they showed us a computer graphics demo reel that included a lot of Mechanical Universe footage. It was very tongue-in-cheek -- I particularly remember the part where the narrator said, "And now, because this is JPL...more gratuitous animation of Saturn!"
posted by The Tensor at 2:42 PM on February 6, 2008

I remember these. Thanks for posting this.

Not that it is important, but if anybody knows, I'm curious: were the classroom scenes done at caltech or at the nearby community college as I've heard?
posted by peppito at 3:08 PM on February 6, 2008

Purely enecdotal evidence, but I think I sat in the same room, or another very like it. Like in Real Genius, tunnels are real, we found and explored them, got chased by the cops a couple of times. Crazy stuff written on the walls underground, found an old bottle of beer by following clues. Friggin' laser in the house library, cut open standard aluminum cans with it. Nearby CC is Pasadena CC, don't know what classrooms there look like. But classroom looks exactly like where I spent a summer.
posted by zengargoyle at 3:54 PM on February 6, 2008

Yay Ph.1! I actually liked this guy's way of putting things so much I bought two copies of his text: one to get grubby through use during the quarter on mechanics, and one to keep pristine for my old age reading. I eventually ended up marrying someone who also went to Tech and so for a while I think there were 3 or 4 copies of this freshman physics book bouncing about our home, (with probably 4 sets of Feynman lectures around too).

Ok, I just cracked it open and found one of my favorite quotes, after discussing Millikan's famously colorful lab notebook, and various issues involving biases we introduce when deciding which data points to be skeptical about, etc.

"Much is written in textbooks about the scientific method, especially that picking the results you like is a cardinal sin. Don't believe everything you read. Science is a difficult and subtle business, and there is no method that assures success."

Wow. Should scientists pay more attention to data points that surprise them, even though that obviously introduces bias?(*) What a rich and challenging thing to run into in one's first real physics text.

(*) I don't know, I'm a theorist but I suspect so. I definitely pay more attention to surprising minus signs then otherwise. Actually I pay a lot more attention to surprising real numbers than I do to surprising integers, but still, there ya go.
posted by johnjoe at 5:03 PM on February 6, 2008

Should scientists pay more attention to data points that surprise them, even though that obviously introduces bias?(*)

I don't think it's even that simple. I work as a software engineer for a researcher and he has an uncanny ability to smell the difference between surprising data that is junk and surprising data that is interesting. The times he tells me to throw away the top and bottom N% vs the times he tells me to be especially sure to keep the top and bottom N% are unfathomable. He has a little daemon feeding him stats on unseen data.

It's incredible but also frustrating, because I'll run a bunch of queries and write a bunch of scripts and then find out that his barely-thought-out guess was spot-on and I could have saved days. Or worse, after all that time, I go back and re-read his instructions and finally realize what he was telling me.
posted by DU at 5:54 PM on February 6, 2008

Physics demonstrations by Julius Sumner Miller on the Youtubes.
posted by neuron at 7:16 PM on February 6, 2008

We used these in my HS physics class and I remember liking them. Then, I got to Caltech and walked into Ph1... and deja vu! (I didn't know when watching them in high school where they were made, so it was kind of a surprise).

Anyways, these are pretty good for "laypeople", especially with the Magic Voice (equation solver thing).
posted by wildcrdj at 7:24 PM on February 6, 2008

DU: the case of your researcher sounds more like someone making cuts on data to exclude unwanted but good events, i.e. true data but data about the irrelevant (i.e. tossing muon events when I only want to look at e+e-). This makes sense, you want to identify the data relevant to the questions you're asking, and you probably learned a lot by doing the queries you did to justify these decisions to yourself (one hopes?).

I'm talking about when you expend energy looking for a good reason to tag data as inappropriate after being surprised (as Millikan did when he saw mass measurement very different from where he expected it). There are subtle issues here. The problem is one naturally doesn't expend the same amount of energy justifying when things are where you expect it, so we've introduced a selection bias. But this is a necessary part of living, the journals aren't full of noise from when the dude next door generated a power fluctuation: you don't report every piece of data you collect, but you do justify why you discard data.
posted by johnjoe at 8:12 PM on February 6, 2008

"Due to licensing agreements, viewing of the video The Mechanical Universe…and Beyond - Introduction is restricted to network connections in the United States and Canada. Your connection appears to be based outside this area. If that is not the case, send a message to Please include your machine's IP number or the external (internet side) IP number of your proxy server, if you are using one." Much angry muttering. Looks great, though.
posted by malusmoriendumest at 4:28 AM on February 7, 2008

they're up (and downloadable) on GUBA
posted by jimmyjimjim at 7:28 PM on February 7, 2008

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