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Let's Take a Course

Whoah — who wants to go through a Yale course together? They’re super well-organized and -presented — better than MIT’s OpenCourseWare, although there are far, far fewer Yale courses.

I think this one looks particularly compelling (and non-generic), but this one seems like it could be pretty mind-expanding as well.

Any interest? It could be like an extended, intermittent Snarkseminar…

December 12, 2007 / Uncategorized


I am totally in for Astrophysics.

Astrophysics sounds great to me too. E-mail me if you guys are serious.

dan says…

/me raises hand, politely, to sign up for snarkinar

I am (vaguely) thinking we could do some sort of thing where we post reactions to a particular lecture video. And maybe aggregate some related (more in-depth?) material from elsewhere. We wouldn’t have to do every single one; it could be a grab-bag.

Any others interested?

def in for death class.

I like Astrophysics. It seems less intro-y than the others… but I’m less sure whether the comments will be mostly just “wow, space is awesomely unbelievable!”

I bet this is what Slate will do next (after “Blogging the Bible” and their book club/TV show conversations).

Fun idea! I would be more about death than I would be about astrophysics. Maybe we could have two tracks?

I thought death sounded cool, but the lecture schedule kind of turned me off. Astrophysics looks good.

I thought some of the MIT ones looked pretty good too. Anyone know good online courses in diff eq, special equations, optics, quantum electrodynamics, or music theory?

One thing I recommend is watching video of each of the first lectures — a kind of e-class-shopping. I just did that for the death and the astrophysics classes, and was confirmed in my guess that the astrophysics-highlights-for-non-science-majors class is a LOT more engaging, and even more philosophical, than the arguments-for-the-existence-of-the-soul seminar. (I’ll save everyone some time. There’s no such thing as a soul. Or at least, there are no good philosophical reasons to believe in one.)

Two highlights from the first astrophysics lecture:

We tell these nice anecdotes and we put them in the textbooks too; in the little bars that go down the side of the textbook, where you get the head and shoulder shot of the famous dead white male scientist and so forth. And then we tell these stories. And the historians of science hate this because it isn’t actually what happened. Nevertheless, we persist in telling these stories, and I’ve been thinking about why that is. I think the way to think about this is what these stories are, are fables. And like any fable, the point is not that the story is true. The point is that it vividly illustrates a moral, which tells you how to behave or how not to behave and they’re useful for that reason. You’ll recall the famous fable of the ant and the grasshopper. Grasshopper sings and plays and dances all summer long. The ant is very industrious, piles up food, doesn’t have any fun. But then in the winter, the grasshopper starves and the ant does fine. If an entomologist were to come along and say but that’s not how ants and grasshoppers behave, you would correctly say that he’s missed the whole point. And the point is that it’s just a nice story which illustrates certain kinds of behaviors and whether they’re good or bad. So, here’s what I’m going to do; I’m going to tell these stories, but I’m going to label them fables and I’m going to point out the morals explicitly. And the optional paper is going to be: go and take any one of these things and find out what really happened and comment somewhat on the implications of the real story for science.

I should say that the biggest of these fables is probably the one about Galileo and the Catholic Church, where the Catholic Church oppresses the pioneering scientist and the scientist stands firm against this huge impersonal bureaucracy, and the establishment trying to squelch them and so forth. The truth of that is actually very subtle and very interesting and I can’t go into it now, among other things because I’m not a historian of science, I’m not the best person to talk about it, but check that out sometime.


What is the orbital period of Jupiter in years? Obviously, that’s going to equal the square root of 125. Here’s another trick. What’s the square root of 125? Quickly? Good, more decimals? You could type it into your calculator though and find out, but let me make a suggestion. Don’t take the square root of 125; take the square root of 121 instead. What’s the square root of 121? 11. Much easier, right? And notice this, a of Jupiter is approximately five, so 53 is approximately 125, and it’s just as good to say 121 is equal to the square root–the square of the period, and P equals 11 years. That’s the orbital period of Jupiter.

All right, so now, I’m aware that many of you are shopping the course today and may not be back for future lectures. And so, I want for those people who have decided against this that they’ll do something far more worthwhile with their time, I want to leave you with something you can carry through your life from your brief experience with Astronomy 160. And that is the following piece of advice: Don’t take the square root of 125, take the square root of 121. It’s much easier. This is what the business people call thinking outside the box. Don’t do the stupid hard thing. Do the thing that is just as good but requires some thought first in order to make it easy. So, I will leave you with that, the rest of you I’ll see you on Thursday morning.

oh woe, am I too late for this? astrophysics & death sound like the most glorious combination

Smart course-shopping, Tim. That bit about ‘science fables’ completely won me over. Let’s do astrophysics. How to proceed, exactly, is something I shall mull on my flight back to California this afternoon…

Sweet! Great project Robin, like a way more structured and educational book club.

Tim: yes that’s what I meant by the “lecture schedule” for Death turned me off; there’s no way I’m spending four class sessions on “arguments for the existence of the soul” and then three more on “arguments for the immortality of the soul”.

Woo hoo. Sign me up for astrophysics. I can be the grumpy historian of science in the back of the room, scowling at the fables.

Sounds really fun! I’d love to participate in the astro-physics snarkinar- would there be a forum thingy or discussion for each video, or for selected ones?

In Today’s NYT: “Last week, Yale put some of its most popular undergraduate courses and professors online free. The list includes Controversies in Astrophysics with Charles Bailyn, Modern Poetry with Langdon Hammer and Introduction to the Old Testament with Christine Hayes.”

But apparently MIT’s Walter H.G. Lewin is the all-star: “Professor Lewin delivers his lectures with the panache of Julia Child bringing French cooking to amateurs and the zany theatricality of YouTube

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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