12 Essential Scientific Concepts

Explore 12 of science's bedrock ideas in this course that introduces you to exciting fields like quantum theory, emergence, thermodynamics, and brain plasticity.
12 Essential Scientific Concepts is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 75.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent lecturer! Good selection of subjects. I'm ten lectures into this course and am convinced that Dr. Viskontas is among the best lecturers I've encountered. I never feel that she wastes a single word or a moment of my time. Nor is the background distracting, as it is in some course videos — my attention is always on the lecturer and her subject and Dr. Viskontas is good at keeping me engaged, even at my age (in the 70s.) The course is not meant for experts, but rather for those of us who are curious about life and can pay attention for half an hour at a time. I bought it on sale, but it's worth several times what I paid.
Date published: 2020-11-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very well presented I purchased this as a refresher course. The Teacher is exceptional in her presentation. So far I have only taken 6 lessons, but it exceeds my expectations.
Date published: 2020-09-24
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Great Presentation, but weak content Dr. Viskontas is clearly one of the best presenters in any of The Great Courses' offerings. However, there is very little material presented that isn't available in good high school biology, physics, and chemistry classes. Further, because Dr. Viskontas isn't an expert in most of the subjects, she fails to catch common mistakes. For example, in the Fluid Dynamics lecture, Dr. Viskontas makes the common non-physicist mistake of attributing aerodynamic lift to the pressure of fluids in motion as described by Bernoulli's equation instead of correctly to the force of accelerating mass as described by Newton's second law. Unless you already know a good deal about the listed subjects, it's possible to miss the mistakes, making it difficult to recommend the course for most listeners.
Date published: 2020-08-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from In all my years of education (school, college, medical school) I have never had such a entrancing teacher. She held my attention all the way. For me it was a refresher course but it was a solidifying return to familiar territory.
Date published: 2020-07-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fabulous course This is a fabulous course! It's presented with great clarity and all descriptions are up to date. As usual with your courses, the chosen instructor could not be better. Having had many classroom courses in college, vocational and military schools, I rate all of your courses the best I've ever had.
Date published: 2020-06-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fabulous Prof is a Living, Breathing Polymath Impossible to rave enough about this sxtraordinary teacher and the extraordinary subject matter. Prof Visakontas has enormous gifts of communication skill and the erudition to back it up. I loved every minute and will probably watch again in the near future. DON'T MISS THIS COURSE!
Date published: 2020-05-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Simply outstanding I am mesmerized by Professor Norden's ability to bring together such a complex topic to a unified and understandable level. The breadth of her knowledge in anatomy, physiology, pathology and clinical applications of her topic are amazing. I enjoyed every one of her lectures and I intend to listen to the topics again. I will try to recommend this lectures to some of my colleagues.
Date published: 2020-05-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from superb presentation I've not finished this course yet but am delighted so far. Indre is attractive and articulate and obviously well versed in the topics involved and is skilled in making complex ideas accessible.
Date published: 2020-04-29
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With 12 Essential Scientific Concepts, finally satisfy your desire for scientific inquiry in a way that makes this enormous field accessible, understandable, and undeniably captivating. Indre Viskontas, an award-winning cognitive neuroscientist affiliated with the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, has a knack for making hard science clear to laypeople. She boils down the scientific world into 12 key concepts every educated person should know. Devoting two lectures to each concept to give you more time to engage with it, her 24-lecture course is your introduction to everything from the behavior of subatomic particles to the latest theories about the Big Bang.


Indre Viskontas
Indre Viskontas

The beauty of science is that with each question that is answered, many more questions are raised; each discovery helps us develop more refined queries about the world around us.


University of California, San Francisco

Dr. Indre Viskontas is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco and Professor of Sciences and Humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she is pioneering the application of neuroscience to musical training. Professor Viskontas received her Bachelor of Science degree with a Specialist in Psychology and a minor in French Literature at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. She also holds a Masters of Music degree in vocal performance from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She completed her PhD in cognitive neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studied the neural basis of memory and reasoning. Her post-doctoral work at the University of California, San Francisco explored the paradoxical facilitation of creativity in patients with neurodegenerative diseases.

By This Professor

12 Essential Scientific Concepts


The Miracle of Life

01: The Miracle of Life

To truly understand what makes life special, you have to understand the fundamental makeup of life. In this first lecture, investigate the basic chemistry of living organisms, from the fundamental importance of water and carbon to the critical functions of proteins-the molecules that allow cells to survive, reproduce, and adapt.

34 min
The Organization of Life

02: The Organization of Life

Turn now to cells and the intricate organization of life. As you take an in-depth tour of eukaryotic cells (the kind your body is made of), you'll learn how to make sense of mitochondria, lysosomes, and other cell parts. You'll also see cellular organization at work in everything from making proteins to generating energy.

29 min
Evolution-The Tireless Tinkerer

03: Evolution-The Tireless Tinkerer

Today, Charles Darwin's landmark theory of evolution is biology's fundamental organizing principle. So how did this revolutionary idea come about, and what were its roots? What scientific evidence proves the fundamental importance of evolution? What do antibiotics reveal about how the tireless tinkering of natural selection works in everyday life?

30 min
Other Mechanisms of Evolution

04: Other Mechanisms of Evolution

Explore some alternative mechanisms through which species can change, including genetic drift and gene flow, and the key role allele frequency plays in our understanding of evolution. You'll also examine the Hardy-Weinberg principle, used by evolutionary scientists to determine whether a population is actually evolving, and which mechanisms are driving the evolution.

31 min
DNA and Heritability

05: DNA and Heritability

Professor Viskontas takes you back to the birth of genetics through the pioneering work of Gregor Mendel. Then, she shows you how to understand DNA as a simple code read by cells to produce new cellular components. And finally, she breaks down the complexities of how genes express themselves: through the generation of proteins.

30 min
Epigenetics, Mutations, and Gene Insertion

06: Epigenetics, Mutations, and Gene Insertion

It turns out that our genes aren't fixed but change across our lifespans. In this fascinating lecture, investigate three major ways in which that happens: epigenetics, the modification of gene expression through environmental changes; mutations, which involve alterations in the genetic code; and gene insertion, in which viruses play a surprising role.

31 min
The Illusion of Coherence-How We See

07: The Illusion of Coherence-How We See

The way you see is modular-but your consciousness is coherent. How is this possible? To answer this perplexing question, you'll explore the biology of the eye and investigate the curious "binding problem" at the heart of the intersection between neural physiology, cognition, and the philosophy of consciousness.

29 min
Acoustic Perception Deconstructed

08: Acoustic Perception Deconstructed

First, get a better understanding of how our ears are built, and how that construction affects the hearing process. Then, learn why hearing loss offers the perfect demonstration of just how complex this process is. Finally, consider the essential subjectivity of pitch and how hearing and sight interact with one another.

30 min
Our Changing Brain

09: Our Changing Brain

Science has revealed that our brains actually change shape over time. But how? Where in the brain does this occur? How are memories created? What is the relationship between brain plasticity and learning (or unlearning) skills and habits? These are just four of the many questions you'll encounter in this first lecture on neuroplasticity.

29 min
Plasticity, Brain Training, and Beyond

10: Plasticity, Brain Training, and Beyond

Delve deeper into the implications of neuroplasticity, and how we can harness its power to stave off the cognitive effects of aging, recover from disease, and master complex skills. The secrets lie in specific parts of the brain, like the hippocampus and specific proteins, like the brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF.

31 min
Magnetism and Its Magic

11: Magnetism and Its Magic

Magnetism is undoubtedly a strange aspect of the scientific world. Here, Professor Viskontas reveals what we know (and have yet to uncover) about magnets and how they work. You'll learn what makes a magnet magnetic, how spinning electrons create magnetic fields, the secrets of ferromagnetism, and much more.

28 min
Electrical Forces, Fields, and Circuits

12: Electrical Forces, Fields, and Circuits

To truly understand magnetism, you have to understand its cousin: electricity. First, get a primer on the basics of electricity. Then, explore the concept of electric potential (a combination of an object's electric charge and its position to other charged objects) and find out how electric circuits actually work in the human body and beyond.

28 min
Thermodynamics-Heat, Energy, and Work

13: Thermodynamics-Heat, Energy, and Work

Explore the concept of power in the inanimate world-as predicted through the three fascinating laws of thermodynamics (which describe the relationship between heat and work). Along the way, you'll understand how an ideal engine works and witness thermodynamics in action through the famous examples of steam and internal combustion engines.

29 min
Metabolism-Energy in the Cell

14: Metabolism-Energy in the Cell

See how the laws of thermodynamics apply to metabolism, the energy exchanges between cells that keep us alive. Explore the inner workings of metabolism with detailed investigations of photosynthesis and cellular respiration. Learn how metabolism plays a role in today's metabolic engineering, a process by which we harness single-celled organisms to create useful products.

31 min
Fluid Mechanics-Pressure, Buoyancy, Flow

15: Fluid Mechanics-Pressure, Buoyancy, Flow

Professor Viskontas offers you a clear explanation of how aerodynamics (or fluid mechanics) works. Central to this illuminating lecture: the opportunity to finally make sense of the fundamentals of this scientific concept, including buoyant force, the relationship between pressure and depth, Bernoulli's equation, and the equation of continuity.

28 min
Navigation and Propulsion in Fluids

16: Navigation and Propulsion in Fluids

How has our greater scientific understanding of fluid mechanics given us the tools to move (and dominate) the land, sea, and air? How do we power the machines that allow us to do so? What's the difference between form drag and skin friction? What's actually happening when your plane hits turbulence?

30 min
The Big Bang That Didn't

17: The Big Bang That Didn't

Travel back to the very start of time and navigate the murky-but undeniably eye-opening-science behind the Big Bang. As you evaluate this scientific theory by considering the evidence available, you'll also ponder three ways the universe could end: the Big Crunch, the Big Freeze, and the Big Rip.

29 min
The Four Forces of Nature

18: The Four Forces of Nature

Explore the four fundamental forces of nature, which scientists believe have guided the formation, expansion, and essence of our universe since it began. Not only will you learn the nuances of the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and gravity-you'll learn the practical implications this knowledge has given us.

32 min
The Elements of Everything

19: The Elements of Everything

Break down the elements of the periodic table and discover how it explains why elements behave the way they do-and points the way to elements that we have yet to discover. Afterward, peek inside the atom and explore subatomic particles, including fermions and the long-elusive Higgs boson.

29 min
Looks like a Particle, Acts like a Wave

20: Looks like a Particle, Acts like a Wave

Is light a wave or a particle? To find the answer, comb through revolutionary ideas by Max Planck and Albert Einstein to encounter the wave-particle duality (a paradox best captured by the famous Heisenberg principle). Then, investigate some of the applications of this duality, specifically through the development and use of lasers.

30 min
Quanta, Uncertainty, and a Cat

21: Quanta, Uncertainty, and a Cat

Quantum mechanics is full of strange contradictions, including a cat that is simultaneously alive and dead. Professor Viskontas introduces you to the Copenhagen Interpretation-the most popular (though still not universally accepted) way to think about this field. You'll also consider some of quantum mechanics' remarkable applications, from nanoscience to quantum computing.

31 min
String Theory, Membranes, and the Multiverse

22: String Theory, Membranes, and the Multiverse

What exactly is string theory? What can M-theory and the behavior of black holes reveal about it? How does the theory of Loop Quantum Gravity explain how gravity works at the quantum level? Answers to all this and more are here in this lecture on a mind-bending scientific concept.

31 min
Emergence-Simple Rules, Complex Systems

23: Emergence-Simple Rules, Complex Systems

The science of emergence explains how simple agents together perform complex feats that are impossible for individual agents to accomplish on their own. Consider what emergence can tell us about seemingly chaotic scenarios through several case studies from wildlife, including ant colonies and flocks of birds.

31 min
Order out of Chaos

24: Order out of Chaos

Continue your look at the most interesting ideas in emergence. First, learn about artificial intelligence and social robotics. Then, ponder the rise of the theory of mind and human self-awareness. Finally, discover how modern cities are emergent structures-and how we play the role of the simple agents that make them function.

32 min