Great Ideas of Classical Physics

Cover three centuries of brilliant thinkers as an award-winning professor takes you step by step through landmark concepts in physics.


Classical physics is about making sense of motion, gravity, light, heat, sound, electricity, and magnetism, and seeing how these phenomena interweave to create the rich tapestry of everyday experience. You already know more physics than you think, says award-winning science educator Steven Pollock. He discusses brilliant thinkers Galileo, Newton, Faraday, and Maxwell to show you that classical physics is an elegant system describing how the world is put together.


Steven Pollock
Steven Pollock

I feel inspired by Michael Faraday (in 1857!): 'When a mathematician has arrived at his conclusions, may they not be expressed in … common language? Would it not be a great boon?... I think it must be so.


University of Colorado, Boulder

Dr. Steven Pollock is Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He earned his B.S. in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his master's degree and Ph.D. in Physics from Stanford University. Prior to taking his position at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Professor Pollock was a senior researcher at the National Institute for Nuclear and High Energy Physics. In 2013, Professor Pollock was honored with a U.S. Professor of the Year award from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He is also the recipient of the Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship and the University of Colorado?s Boulder Faculty Assembly Teaching Excellence Award. He has taught a wide variety of physics courses at all levels, from introductory physics to advanced nuclear and particle physics, with an intriguing recent foray into the physics of energy and the environment. Professor Pollock is the author of the multimedia textbook Physics I. He became a Pew/Carnegie National Teaching Scholar in 2001, and is a member of the American Physical Society-Nuclear Physics Division and the American Association of Physics Teachers. He has presented both nuclear physics research and his scholarship on teaching at numerous conferences, seminars, and colloquia.

By This Professor

The Great Ideas of Classical Physics

01: The Great Ideas of Classical Physics

Professor Pollock opens the course with an overview of the domain of classical physics: forces and motion, matter and energy, space and time, and particles and waves.

34 min
Describing Motion - A Break from Aristotle

02: Describing Motion - A Break from Aristotle

Greek natural philosophers made enormous progress 2,000 years ago but missed something essential in their analysis of nature - the scientific method. This lecture examines Galileo's challenge to ancient ideas.

30 min
Describing Ever More Complex Motion

03: Describing Ever More Complex Motion

Galileo's study of marbles rolling down ramps led to a distinction between velocity and acceleration. Acceleration is one of the paradigmatic ideas in physics, relating to the concept of rate of change.

31 min
Astronomy as a Bridge to Modern Physics

04: Astronomy as a Bridge to Modern Physics

Speculations on Earth's place in the universe, the nature of planets, and the structure of the solar system were at the heart of the development of classical physics. This lecture looks at the work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo.

30 min
Isaac Newton - The Dawn of Classical Physics

05: Isaac Newton - The Dawn of Classical Physics

The turning point in the development of classical physics traces to Isaac Newton. This lecture covers Newton's background and the first two of his laws of motion, involving inertia (mass), acceleration, and force.

30 min
Newton Quantified - Force and Acceleration

06: Newton Quantified - Force and Acceleration

The master idea for this course is Newton's statement of the relationship between force and acceleration: F = ma. This formula determines almost all of classical physics. It is at once simple and deep.

31 min
Newton and the Connections to Astronomy

07: Newton and the Connections to Astronomy

Thinking about circular motion led Newton to an understanding of planetary motion, closing the loop with Galileo, Kepler, and Copernicus, and making sense of a Sun-centered solar system and its connection to everyday motion.

30 min
Universal Gravitation

08: Universal Gravitation

Newton's deduction of the law of gravity involved some speculation, just a little math, and a lot of creativity. Remarkably, it succeeded in unifying terrestrial and celestial phenomena into one framework.

30 min
Newton's Third Law

09: Newton's Third Law

Newton's third law of motion ("for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction") can be exasperatingly counterintuitive at first, but it makes perfect sense in terms of a new quantity, momentum.

29 min
Conservation of Momentum

10: Conservation of Momentum

Introducing the concept of momentum broadens the power of physics and results in the Newtonian world-view of the universe as a deterministic clockwork, based on only a few basic underlying and unified principles.

31 min
Beyond Newton - Work and Energy

11: Beyond Newton - Work and Energy

A century after Newton, a new concept more abstract than force gained popularity: energy. Energy forms the basis of understanding everything from chemistry and biology to geology and engineering.

30 min
Power and the Newtonian Synthesis

12: Power and the Newtonian Synthesis

The concept that energy can move from place to place and change forms helps explain why things behave as they do. The rate at which energy flows from one system to another (the power) explains even more.

30 min
Further Developments - Static Electricity

13: Further Developments - Static Electricity

In Newton's day, electricity and magnetism were mere curiosities. By the 19th century, serious investigation into these phenomena began. Though heralded as "new" forces of nature, they still fit within the Newtonian framework.

31 min
Electricity, Magnetism, and Force Fields

14: Electricity, Magnetism, and Force Fields

In his studies of electricity and magnetism, Michael Faraday introduced the radical idea of the force "field." Sources create a field around them, and other objects then respond locally to that field.

31 min
Electrical Currents and Voltage

15: Electrical Currents and Voltage

This lecture covers electrical concepts such as charge, voltage, and current. Progress in understanding electricity in the 19th century led to rapid developments in applied physics.

31 min
The Origin of Electric and Magnetic Fields

16: The Origin of Electric and Magnetic Fields

Electricity and magnetism are distinct but intimately related. This lecture explores the myriad connections between them, leading to a deeper understanding of the unity of electromagnetic physics.

31 min
Unification I - Maxwell's Equations

17: Unification I - Maxwell's Equations

In one of the great triumphs of classical physics, James Clerk Maxwell summarized two centuries of research on electricity and magnetism in four famous equations, explained here in words and concepts.

30 min
Unification II - Electromagnetism and Light

18: Unification II - Electromagnetism and Light

Published in the 1860s, Maxwell's equations made a startling prediction: Electric and magnetic fields should interact to produce electromagnetic waves - of which visible light is only a tiny range of a vast spectrum.

31 min
Vibrations and Waves

19: Vibrations and Waves

Vibrations and the associated phenomenon of waves are everywhere in the natural world. Understanding the big ideas of waves plays a key role in the developing story of physics.

30 min
Sound Waves and Light Waves

20: Sound Waves and Light Waves

One hundred years after Newton described light as a stream of particles, Thomas Young turned the world of optics on its head when he demonstrated that light was not made of particles but was in fact a wave phenomenon.

32 min
The Atomic Hypothesis

21: The Atomic Hypothesis

Atoms provide a unifying principle even greater than Maxwell's equations. Energy, structure of materials, chemistry, heat, optics, and much more become simpler to describe and explain at a fundamental level.

29 min
Energy in Systems - Heat and Thermodynamics

22: Energy in Systems - Heat and Thermodynamics

Thermodynamics is the study of heat and energy. When there are large numbers of particles, average quantities become easier, not more difficult, to predict. This is the heart of thermodynamics.

31 min
Heat and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

23: Heat and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

One of the last great developments of classic physics was the discovery of a new property of systems, entropy, defined colloquially as "you can't win, you can't break even, and you can't get out of the game."

31 min
The Grand Picture of Classical Physics

24: The Grand Picture of Classical Physics

Classical physics is defined in part historically and in part by a philosophical outlook: The world is ordered, and there is a limited set of fundamental ideas that explain and predict all natural phenomena.

31 min