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Understanding the Misconceptions of Science

Adjust the prescription of your science glasses by debunking myths about everything from time travel to space aliens to the Big Bang.
Understanding the Misconceptions of Science is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 68.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fabulous, Insightful This course is excellent for those who have had doubts about certain aspects of science. It starts out simply (“Yes, if Benjamin Franklin’s kite were hit by lightning he would have been killed") and gradually introduces more complex misconceptions. Lecture 2 (=L2) contains math, but while he shows the basic equations, he explains what they show. Starting in L3 he explains that more accurate equations exist (ie.: the Van der Waals equation over the Ideal Gas Law) and are useful for specialists in the field (ie: the Redlich -Kwong model is even better than the Van der Waals). This is an important part of the course, as he is very good at providing simple insight but doesn’t deny that better models AND even then limitations exist. FAVORITES: L4 “How Flying Works” scratched a life-long doubt: why the Bernoulli equation for fluid flow over the top/bottom of an aircraft wing is wrong. Instead “extremely complex math" (not shown) shows that when the air moves over a wing, it also flows upward creating a lower pressure on the top of the wing AND the wing’s deflection of air creating an upward force on the top. L5 “How Falling Works" nicely explains the befuddling Coriolis effects on long-range cannon trajectory and makes you wonder why you didn’t know the reason that astronauts appear (but are not) "weightless" in the Space Station. L7 gradually builds up to a most amazing paragraph that deserves to be considered in everything from science fiction to sermons. Since atoms are made of quarks, which have little mass, but E=mc2 means that energy and mass are equivalent: “The quarks inside you carry about 2% of your mass. The other 98% is actually just energy. You are force fields, not ‘stuff’ ". Perhaps this perspective will lead to a deeper respect for each other. His L8 summation of the 1962 Drake equation agrees with my personal bias regarding the possibility of alien civilizations. He points out that " neglects important parameters” and “...(its) factors (have) to be much rarer than we imagine.” L9 cautions: “Evolution does not mean more complex organisms will form” but rather to variety. The evolution of variety is exquisitely important – without its massive support, how long would we last? L12’s statement that IQs are no longer biased against disenfranchised groups is hopefully correct. His caution that “women tend not to be as interested in the hard sciences” resulting in a skewed IQ vs. college major graph is an old interpretation which might need to be confirmed by a woman led study. CON: L10 emphasizes different gut biomes as responsible for obesity rather than food availability/choices. Perhaps there is some small truth here, but having breakfasted this morning with a restaurant full of obese diabetics eating huge amounts of horrendous “food”, I suspect gut malfeasance is a minor factor. SUGGESTED COURSE ORDER: There are two Great Courses that prepare you for Lincoln’s more complex observations, especially L7, L13, L22-24: "Impossible Physics" by Shumaker and “Particle Physics for Non-physicists" by Pollock were useful preparations. Shumacher is good for physics “newbies" and discusses topics including perpetual motion machines, what absolute zero entails, symmetry, quantum cloning, conservation of energy and charge, time travel, FTL, the uncertainty principle, and whether one can predict the future of a chaotic system. Pollock creates a story about the mental steps it took to arrive at an increasingly accurate understanding of the particle nature of the universe. CONCLUSION: The last two lectures of this 2019 course brilliantly explain why quantum observation (and Schrodinger’s Cat) “does not require a mind”; why a Theory of Everything seems to need a single building block and a single force; where dark matter doesn't fit in; how the Higgs boson confirmed that the 4 forces of gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear and strong nuclear forces have now become (on the quantum level) gravity, the strong nuclear force, and the electroweak force; and briefly mentions “Superstring Theory" as the “imagined connection...that might be right”. QUIZZES: The 4 quizzes are fabulous AND they have answers! Each question actually helps you better understand the course lectures. Take the quizzes!
Date published: 2023-09-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Understanding the Misconceptions of Science Don Lincoln is one of the best instructors on the Great Courses.
Date published: 2023-06-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good but needs more metaphysics The physicist seeks to improve milk production by postulating a spherical cow that radiates milk in all directions. There is no such cow. Dr. Lincoln knows that; however, by lecture 20, he discusses the Big Bang theory as if it were factual Gospel. Please consult I. Kant, Thos. Kuhn and/or Alvin Gouldner for the appropriate grain of salt to add.
Date published: 2023-04-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear and understandable to the non scientist This is one of the best lecture series I've done, and I've done at least 15. This lecturer is engaging and lucid. He explains complicated ideas in simple terms so that a non scientist can understand. I think all high school students should watch this course. I'm not in high school any more, but I wish I had a teacher this good when I was. I knew most of the concepts and didn't have a lot of misinformation myself, but I understood many concepts in physics much better after watching this course. BTW, there were 2 physicists in my family.
Date published: 2023-04-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating Most topics left me wanting more, probably a very healthy response. I do have a caveat to add to the Statistics presentation. Large numbers can provide a "significant" result, but really that is "statistically significant" and not necessarily practically significant. A treatment for cancer that only extends life one day is not medically useful, nor is a pricey product modification that extends use by one day likely to be adopted by the manufacturer. Yet given a large enough sample base, either of these can be statistically significant.
Date published: 2022-10-30
Rated 1 out of 5 by from A disappointment I enjoyed the first episodes of the course. The lecturer seemed well informed. But in the later episodes seemed slipshod and uninformed. The episode in which he opines on IQ is awful. He cites approvingly a WSJ article "Mainstream Sciences on Intelligence" signed by many psychologists defending the Bell Curve view as if stated established science. It isn't-- see the Wikiipedia entry on the article
Date published: 2022-09-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Humerous and clear speaker Dr. Lincoln has chosen a very interesting list of topics to explain and he presents them in a direct and humerous manner.
Date published: 2022-08-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Finally -- the Real Thing Totally recommended for the incurably curious -- knowledge and understanding found nowhere else. A most informative and pleasant presentation by an accomplished Scientist. A Great Course!
Date published: 2022-06-23
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Join a senior scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory for 24 eye-opening lectures designed to correct popular myths and misconceptions about how science works.


Don Lincoln

There are so many clues from physics that are staring at us in the face. They are telling us something profound.


Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab)

Don Lincoln is a Senior Scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). He is also a Guest Professor of High Energy Physics at the University of Notre Dame. He received his Ph.D. in Experimental Particle Physics from Rice University.

Dr. Lincoln's research has been divided between Fermilab's Tevatron Collider, until its close in 2011, and the CERN Large Hadron Collider, located outside Geneva, Switzerland. The author of more than 1,000 scientific publications, his most noteworthy accomplishments include serving on the teams that discovered the top quark in 1995 and confirmed the Higgs boson in 2012. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

His writing at a popular level includes many articles as well as four books: Understanding the Universe, The Quantum Frontier, The Large Hadron Collider, and Alien Universe. His enthusiasm for science education earned him the 2013 Outreach Prize from the High Energy Physics Division of the European Physical Society.

Dr. Lincoln has given hundreds of lectures on four continents to a broad range of audiences. He is a blogger for the website of the PBS television series NOVA, and he also writes a weekly column for the online periodical Fermilab Today.

By This Professor

The Evidence for Modern Physics: How We Know What We Know
Understanding the Misconceptions of Science
The Theory of Everything: The Quest to Explain All Reality
Understanding the Misconceptions of Science


What the World Gets Wrong about Science

01: What the World Gets Wrong about Science

Start your journey through some of the most jarring misconceptions of science with this introductory look at the nature of science itself. You’ll examine ways the scientific method deviates from the way it’s taught, the true definitions of terms like “theory” and “model,” and the relationship science shares with philosophy.

33 min
Franklin’s Kite and Other Electrifying Myths

02: Franklin’s Kite and Other Electrifying Myths

It turns out the usual story of Benjamin Franklin’s discovery of electricity using just a kite and a key isn’t exactly true. Get the real story behind this and other misunderstandings about electricity and reframe the way you think about how electricity works—in nature, in batteries, and throughout your home.

27 min
The Ideal Gas Law (It’s Not Ideal)

03: The Ideal Gas Law (It’s Not Ideal)

Here, Professor Lincoln reveals the ways in which common teachings about gases and their properties are idealizations that ignore important considerations such as the size of atoms. Topics include the limitations of the Ideal Gas Law (PV=nRT) and the importance of the van der Waals equation.

29 min
From the Ground Up: How Flying Works

04: From the Ground Up: How Flying Works

Get a whirlwind introduction to the scientific truths about how planes fly through the air. This lecture overturns the (often-very-wrong) way flight is taught in introductory physics classes and focuses on two relevant subjects involved in flight: air circulation and how the wing pushes air downward.

28 min
From the Sky Down: How Falling Works

05: From the Sky Down: How Falling Works

Introductory physics classes tell you that a ball thrown on the surface of the earth follows a parabola. What happens when you take away the simplifying assumptions in this scenario? How do we factor in air resistance and the Earth’s rotation? What happens when an object falls from very great heights?

27 min
Myths of Orbital Motion

06: Myths of Orbital Motion

In this lecture, revisit some of the common misconceptions we have about how the universe works, with a focus on our solar system. Two myths you’ll bust: that the orbits of planets are all fixed ellipses and that astronauts on the International Space Station live in zero gravity.

32 min
What’s Inside Atoms?

07: What’s Inside Atoms?

Discover a very different idea about the real essence of matter as it relates to the molecules and atoms of chemistry. Learn to think about matter as entirely empty space, not tiny balls; consider the inside of a proton and neutron; and ponder the question of where, exactly, mass comes from.

29 min
The Truth Is in Here: The Science of Aliens

08: The Truth Is in Here: The Science of Aliens

There are some popular misconceptions about alien life that science-fiction writers have said often enough that we take them to be likely or true—but are they? Professor Lincoln unpacks the possibility of silicon-based life and truths about the Drake equation, which posits the number of possible civilizations in our universe.

30 min
Misconceptions about Evolution

09: Misconceptions about Evolution

It’s often the misconceptions about evolution that lead people to not believe in it. This lecture tackles four prevalent myths about the theory of evolution: that it explains how life began, that it states humans descended from chimpanzees, that evolution has a goal, and that evolution means more complex organisms will evolve.

31 min
Nutrition’s All About You —and Your Gut Biome

10: Nutrition’s All About You —and Your Gut Biome

How do misconceptions about nutrition spread? What if what you learned about digestion isn’t the entire story? In this lecture, examine the unseemly alliance between science, advertisers, and the media; and make sense of the important role that a fascinating microbe ecosystem plays in how the human gut works.

32 min
Humans Are Not Peas: Myths about Genetics

11: Humans Are Not Peas: Myths about Genetics

It might surprise you to know that most human characteristics—including eye color—aren’t governed by a single gene. Nor do dominant genes always become more common over time. As you’ll discover, we owe these and other misconceptions about genetics to the Punnett squares you first encountered in high school biology.

32 min
Getting Smarter about Intelligence

12: Getting Smarter about Intelligence

Focus your attention on popular myths about the human brain. There’s the myth that we only use 10 percent of our brain power, the concept that people can be right- or left-brained, and the complexities of learning styles and IQ scores to consider. Use current science to make sense of how your brain works.

32 min
Exposing the Truth about Radiation

13: Exposing the Truth about Radiation

Radiation is one of the most misunderstood of all scientific phenomena. Get the scientific truths about this subject by investigating the four types of ionizing radiation, including alpha radiation, beta radiation, gamma radiation, and neutron radiation. Then consider how much radiation you encounter every day—and how much of it you can ignore.

34 min
Does Carbon-14 Dating Work?

14: Does Carbon-14 Dating Work?

Clarify oversimplified ideas concerning how carbon dating works and get a stronger appreciation of just how complicated and sophisticated a scientific technique it is. While dating objects under 60,000 years old has become relatively easy, the current accuracy of modern science depends on taking subtle effects into consideration. You’ll learn why doing it precisely takes some care.

30 min
How Statistics Can Lie to You

15: How Statistics Can Lie to You

The best way to read statistics correctly: Understand the various ways they can be misused to fool you. Here, Professor Lincoln discusses how averages and percentages can make certain statistics seem shocking, reveals how you should rethink the confidence threshold of 95 percent that scientists use, and more.

30 min
Does Thermodynamics Disprove Evolution?

16: Does Thermodynamics Disprove Evolution?

Take on a few of the simpler misunderstandings revolving around heat as it relates to thermodynamics: the ways heat energy moves and changes. Is it correct to say heat always rises? Are entropy and disorder synonymous? How do we often misinterpret the second law of thermodynamics, and what does it tell us about evolution?

29 min
How Relativity Is Misunderstood

17: How Relativity Is Misunderstood

At its core, relativity is about something very simple: how two people in relative motion see the world differently. In the first of two lectures on misunderstandings about relativity, explore the Lorentz transforms, then journey through a seeming paradox that disappears once you use the Lorentz transforms properly.

33 min
E=mc2 and Other Relativity Myths

18: E=mc2 and Other Relativity Myths

Get the truth about the most famous equation in science. Ponder the most notorious paradox in special relativity, known as the twin paradox. Discover whether or not we really can travel faster than the speed of light. Strengthen your appreciation of how, despite its mind-blowing nature, relativity is the way the world works.

32 min
Why Do Black Holes Get Such a Bad Rap?

19: Why Do Black Holes Get Such a Bad Rap?

Few astronomical bodies are more misunderstood—and more mysterious—than black holes. Can they actually reach out and grab matter near them? Do they have a singularity at their core? Find out in this journey that takes you from outside the Schwarzschild radius to inside the event horizon and beyond.

31 min
What Banged, and Was It Big?

20: What Banged, and Was It Big?

Develop a better, more scientifically accurate mental picture of the Big Bang. What exactly happens is hard to get your head around, but the key involves understanding the links between matter, energy, space, and time. And all you need to grasp this fascinating concept is a common balloon.

30 min
Can You Go Faster Than Light?

21: Can You Go Faster Than Light?

In this lecture, Professor Lincoln explains the various ways in which talking about the speed of light can lead to a misunderstanding of whether or not particles can travel faster than light. Learn why it’s more accurate to say objects cannot move through space faster than light—but space itself can.

30 min
Untangling How Quantum Mechanics Works

22: Untangling How Quantum Mechanics Works

Examine the peculiarities of quantum mechanics in an effort to better understand what’s going on in the quantum world. Get a whirlwind introduction that covers everything from the wave function and the behavior of electrons to the double-slit experiment and the surprising differences between classical and quantum mechanics.

29 min
Untangling What Quantum Mechanics Means

23: Untangling What Quantum Mechanics Means

Dig deeper into misconceptions about quantum mechanics, with a focus on the complicated, the contradictory, and the downright sketchy. What happens to an electron when you’re not looking at it? Can a cat be both alive and dead at the same time? Should we connect quantum mechanics with Buddhism and Taoism?

32 min
Is There a Theory of Everything?

24: Is There a Theory of Everything?

Searching for a theory of everything is a grand, epic saga. Start your own search with this engrossing investigation of the building blocks of the cosmos and the forces that hold them together—both of which are required to even begin to develop a fundamental theory that answers all questions.

38 min