10 great physics courses you can take online right now, for free

Here are 10 physics courses you can take now with some of the best experts in the world.

10 great physics courses you can take online right now, for free
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  • You can find numerous physics courses currently available online for free.
  • Courses are taught by instructors with amazing credits like Nobel Prizes and field-defining work.
  • Topics range from introductory to Einstein's theory of relativity, particle physics, dark energy, quantum mechanics, and more.


The internet has in many ways fulfilled its educational promise and can be an amazing resource to learn pretty much anything. This is especially true if you have an interest in physics, the study of matter, energy and the fundamental interactions and forces of our universe. There are hundreds of great free courses available, with field-leading and even Nobel Prize-winning instructors.

To get you started, we distilled through the resources to come up with a list of 10 courses you can take right now and get your physics journey under way.

Here we go:

1. How Things Work: An Introduction to Physics

A great intro course that looks at physics in the context of everyday objects and processes. How does skating work? Why do things fall? The course uses the cases of ramps, wheels, bumper cars and more to illuminate the physics of life around you. It is taught by the University of Virginia physics professor Louis A. Bloomfield, a noted science educator, lecturer, author, as well as tv host.

ENROLL HERE

2. Fundamentals of Physics I

If you want to brush up on the essential concepts of physics, this course from Yale University might be for you. Taught by the physics professor Ramamurti Shankar, the lessons cover the principles and methods of physics, focusing on problem solving, quantitative reasoning and such concepts as Newtonian mechanics, special relativity, gravitation, waves, and thermodynamics.

ENROLL HERE

3. Astrophysics: The Violent Universe

Would you like to know about some of the most mysterious phenomena in the Universe? This fun course will bring you up to speed on white dwarfs, supernovae, neutron stars and black holes.

The 9-week course from the Australian National University has over 60,000 people enrolled, and is taught by Brian Schmidt, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist for his work on discovering dark energy. His co-teacher is the science educator and astrophysics researcher Paul Francis, who has a PhD from the University of Cambridge and has worked with NASA. He is particularly known for working on the spectra of quasars.

ENROLL HERE

4. From the Big Bang to Dark Energy

Want to get a general introduction to some of the main ideas about how the Universe was formed and where it's going? The Big Bang, the formation of the elements, the Higgs Boson, dark matter, dark energy and anti-matter all feature prominently in this 14-hour course, offered by the University of Tokyo.

It is taught by Hitoshi Murayama, a University of California, Berkley physics professor and the Director of Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe.

ENROLL HERE

5. Physics: Intro to Electricity & Magnetism

Want to understand Electricity and Magnetism? Take this course that currently has over 16,000 online students! This course was created by Scott Redmond, who worked previously in support of the International Space Station as a Mission Operations Analyst and conducted astronaut training before turning to teaching physics. The course offers 46 lectures in over 4 hours of video content and additional materials.

ENROLL HERE

6. Understanding Einstein: The Special Theory of Relativity

This interesting 8-week course, taught by Stanford University's Academic Director and historian of science Larry Randles Lagerstrom, goes deep into how Einstein came up with his famous theory. While setting up the background in both history and theory, the class provides a richer understanding of the theory of relativity itself.

ENROLL HERE

7. Quantum Mechanics: Wavefunctions, Operators, and Expectation Values

This advanced 7-week course from MIT will teach you the basics of quantum mechanics, introducing such concepts as wavefunctions, the Schrodinger equation, uncertainty relations and the properties of quantum observables. The course is intended for people with previous college-level calculus and physics courses under their belt.

The currently archived but available course is taught by the MIT physics professor Barton Zwiebach, a specialist in string theory and theoretical particle physics, along with MIT physics lecturer Jolyon Bloomfield.

ENROLL HERE

8. Particle Physics: an Introduction

If learning about the workings of very small things sounds appealing and you love supercolliders, this is the course for you. In this class you will learn about subatomic physics, including the properties of atomic nuclei, how to detect and accelerate particles, as well as about electromagnetic, strong and weak interactions. And, of course, the Higgs Boson makes an appearance. The lessons will also talk about how to connect particle physics to astrophysics and the larger questions of the Universe.

This 31-hour course from the University of Geneva is taught by professor Marin Pohl, who works in experimental particle physics on European colliders like the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) in Switzerland. His current focus is astroparticle physics in space. The course's second teacher is assistant professor Anna Sfyrla, an experimental particle physicist, who teachers at the University of Geneva.

ENROLL HERE

9. Fundamental Lessons from String Theory

Is the Universe made of strings? If you're ready to dive into some of the headier explanations for everything in existence, take this great master class which can be completed in a few hours. It is taught by the Harvard University physics professor and string theory expert Cumrun Vafa, and was developed with the world-renowned string theorist Andrew Strominger.

ENROLL HERE

10. Relativity and Astrophysics

If you want to further under understanding of Einstein's theory of relativity, you'd be interested in its connection to astronomy as explored in this course from Cornell University. Taught by astronomy professor David F. Chernoff, an expert in theoretical astrophysics, the lessons will deepen your knowledge by zeroing in on special and general relativity as well as experimental tests you can carry out to study them. You will also get to analyze paradoxes in special relativity and learn how relativity affects daily situations.

The prerequisite for this 4-week (currently archived but available) course requires at least high school level math and physics or an intro college course in both.

ENROLL HERE

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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