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Great Scientific Ideas That Changed the World

Learn about transformative scientific discoveries that have altered history in this brilliant and fascinating course by an award-winning historian of science.

Great Scientific Ideas That Changed the World is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 113.
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Rated 1 out of 5 by from Distracting presentation! I have completed a lot of courses on this platform but this was by far the worst. Every other course was fine, but this presenter is painful to watch making his presentation. First, he moves all around the podium and beside it in hurried motions and waves his hands all around and he does not make eye contact with the camera and it is all just so annoying I cannot watch anymore.
Date published: 2024-07-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Historical Review of Science I found this series very informative and educational. I agree with other reviews that he often goes off on tangents, but I found those tangents equally informative and educational. In fact I began looking forward to those tangents because they were so insightful. I really enjoyed this course to the extent that I'll probably go back and watch a few of the lectures a second time.
Date published: 2024-04-09
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Disappointed in the preaentation I enjoyed another course “12 scientific concepts” so much that I got this one too. I was pretty disappointed by this series, unfortunately. The presentation is not engaging, I really had to make an effort to keep listening. He goes off tangents a lot, getting lost in manure details that are added, with little value. How tone of voice is not engaging, and he seems to even get lost himself in his side bars. Not a whole lot of scientific content. Not much scientific depth. And the last lecture, claiming to “bring everything together” did not meet the claim.
Date published: 2023-08-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoroughly engaging presentation. I wasn't sure during the first lecture if I'd get through this course; Dr. Goldman is constantly moving around and it distracted me. However, the topic and discussion was engaging. By the third or fourth lecture, I was hooked. Goldman's mobility is just and extension of his enthusiasm for his subject matter. His breadth of knowledge is amazing and in 30 minute increments he has to share a lot of information. This is all good. His vitality is actually contagious and I soon looked forward to each lecture with bated breath. Well done Dr. Goldman.
Date published: 2023-05-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Much more than a survey! I was impressed the first time I listened to this series of lectures by Dr. Goldman’s. Upon a follow up listen I am much more impressed. This is much more than a survey of big ideas in the history of science. It is, in Goldman’s words, an explanation that science is a driver of social change. Science is as much a social phenomenon as an intellectual phenomenon. That is, in Dr. Goldman’s words, scientific concepts are not natural. Rather, they are invented with certain objectives in mind. He is an engaging and fascinating lecturer. In brief this is a worthwhile course for anyone interested in the role of science in the history of ideas.
Date published: 2023-05-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Lots of info, but delivery was not great Dr. Goldman was very knowledgeable in so many aspect of the science history, but his delivery was nervous and halting. He knew what he wanted to say, yet it was never very smooth. In spite of this I would recommend the course because the content was interesting.
Date published: 2022-11-22
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Great Scientific Ideas If I had known how distracting the Prof's constant pacing and arm waving would be, I would not have started the course.
Date published: 2022-08-31
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Philosophy of Science Make no mistake, this is a work of Philosophy, at best the Philosophy of Science. Scientific topics take a secondary, incidental role. The Professor is discursive to the point of rambling and it is very difficult to keep up with him and follow his logical thread, if indeed one exists. He constantly moves left and right, making exaggerated hand gestures and this becomes most distracting even irritating. I strongly suggest the course should be followed on audio alone. Illustrations are sparse so this should make little difference. This is a course which takes stamina and determination to complete.
Date published: 2022-02-12
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In this course you will explore ideas that—when society has been willing to pursue them—have helped form the foundation of modern life. You'll discover there is no sharp distinction between ideas that are classified as scientific and those that are classified as philosophical or mathematical, or even between scientific ideas and political, religious, or aesthetic ideas. In each lecture, you also will examine the content of a single idea that is fundamental for science, how that idea arose, and what its impact has been throughout the centuries.


Steven L. Goldman

After 50 years, I continue to find new depths and fresh excitement in studying the history and philosophy of science.


Lehigh University

Dr. Steven L. Goldman is the Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Lehigh University, where he has taught for 30 years. He earned his B.S. in Physics at the Polytechnic University of New York and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Boston University.

Before taking his position at Lehigh, Professor Goldman taught at The Pennsylvania State University, where he was a cofounder of one of the first U.S. academic programs in science, technology, and society studies.

Professor Goldman has received the Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award from Lehigh University. A prolific author, he has written or edited eight books, including Science, Technology, and Social Progress, and he has an impressive list of scholarly articles and reviews to his credit. He has been a national lecturer for the scientific research society Sigma Xi and a national program consultant for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

By This Professor

Knowledge, Know-How, and Social Change

01: Knowledge, Know-How, and Social Change

Scientific discoveries require scientific ideas. Scientific ideas primarily act on society through technology, but they also change our sense of who we are and of what the world is. Modern science is a uniquely Western cultural phenomenon, and the combination of abstract scientific knowledge with practical know-how in the 19th century made possible "techno-science," which has remained a relentless driver of social change ever since.

32 min
Writing Makes Science Possible

02: Writing Makes Science Possible

Writing is a core commitment of science because scientific knowledge is an abstraction—not embodied in concrete things or processes. Cultures without writing may be quite sophisticated in other ways, and cultures can be highly literate without developing an idea of science.

32 min
Inventing Reason and Knowledge

03: Inventing Reason and Knowledge

The idea of knowledge had to be invented. Plato and Aristotle defined knowledge as something universal, not linked to probabilities or context. For them, knowledge was timeless, universal, necessary, and certain, and their paradigm was deductive logical reasoning, as in geometry.

31 min
The Birth of Natural Science

04: The Birth of Natural Science

Plato believed that true reality was form, which exists separately from matter. Aristotle broke decisively with Plato by declaring there is only one reality, which is nature, and that all natural phenomena are to be explained within the framework of nature. Parmenides posited that reality was manifested in changeless things, while Heraclitus said reality was change or process—and the tension between these two approaches continues to this day.

32 min
Mathematics as the Order of Nature

05: Mathematics as the Order of Nature

Pythagoras proposed a mathematical order underlying nature, and mathematics could be used to describe natural phenomena. Although Aristotle generally dismissed the value of mathematics for the study of nature, Archimedes and others followed the example of Pythagoras.

32 min
The Birth of Techno-Science

06: The Birth of Techno-Science

In the 1st century B.C.E., the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote about the fruitful combination of abstract knowledge with practical know-how. Today we would call a person who combines both an engineer. Vitruvius did not originate this idea, but Roman society from his time forward experienced the first heyday of machines whose invention depended on mathematical knowledge.

32 min
Universities Relaunch the Idea of Knowledge

07: Universities Relaunch the Idea of Knowledge

In the 12th century, social pressure to make life better and to explore knowledge spawned universities across Europe. From the 12th through the 16th centuries, universities revived and extended Classical and Islamic learning in mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and science.

32 min
The Medieval Revolution in Know-How

08: The Medieval Revolution in Know-How

Parallel with the rise of universities was an explosion of technical skills supporting the development of water mills, sawmills, blast furnaces, and the like. The most famous gear-related invention of the age was the weight-driven mechanical clock. Improved sailing and navigation technologies supported increased trade. Banks and corporations were established.

32 min
Progress Enters into History

09: Progress Enters into History

The notion of progress did not begin with technology but with Petrarch and a concern about language. Humanist schol­ars developed scholarly techniques for re­con­structing Classical texts then sought to surpass Classical learning. The Humanist idea of progress paved the way for the idea of social reform based on scientific reason.

32 min
The Printed Book - Gutenberg to Galileo

10: The Printed Book - Gutenberg to Galileo

Printing of texts and movable type were old technologies when Gutenberg introduced the latter to Europe. Unlike China and the Middle East, the West embraced metallic movable type and became "print drunk." The response triggered the creation of a vast sociotechnic system to supply, produce, and distribute texts. Institutions were created to protect and reward producers and increase literacy, promoting further increases in text production and distribution.

31 min
Renaissance Painting and Techno-Science

11: Renaissance Painting and Techno-Science

The technique of perspective used by Renaissance painters made visual the notion that "reality" is structured by mathematics. The rebirth of techno-science depended largely on their work, with further contributions by Renaissance mapmaking, instrument tuning (musical theory), and books illustrating the design of machines.

32 min
Copernicus Moves the Earth

12: Copernicus Moves the Earth

Pythagoreans claimed that astronomical bodies were spheres, their orbits circles, and their motion constant because they were perfect. Copernicus replaced Ptolemy's Earth-centered model with a Sun-centered model, but it remained for his followers to make the planetary orbits elliptical, rather than circular, and posit an infinite universe.

32 min
The Birth of Modern Science

13: The Birth of Modern Science

Bringing together all of the ideas discussed to this point was the 17th century's idea of modern science. A new emphasis on scientific method was a critical factor in pulling everything together, though founding figures of this period such as René Descartes and Francis Bacon championed radically different methods.

32 min
Algebra, Calculus, and Probability

14: Algebra, Calculus, and Probability

During the 16th and 17th centuries, mathematics in the West took a remarkable turn. It moved from geometry, which the ancient Greeks had favored, to embrace algebra—which was as momentous as the transition from Ptolemaic astronomy to Copernican astronomy. Calculus provided an unprecedented tool for knowledge about change, and the mathematics of probability opened the way for knowledge about uncertainty.

32 min
Conservation and Symmetry

15: Conservation and Symmetry

Experience suggests that nature is orderly and lawful; if so, then something has to be conserved. From this notion slowly developed the ideas of conservation of momentum, matter, and energy; Einstein's idea that matter and energy are jointly conserved; and the use of mathematical invariances to understand deep symmetries in nature.

32 min
Instruments as Extensions of the Mind

16: Instruments as Extensions of the Mind

Galileo saw what he described as moons around Jupiter in the 17th century, but his description could not be verified independently for many years. If a scientific instrument gives a result that cannot be verified independently, then the result is really an extension of the mind rather than of the senses. This is no less true today: particle accelerators, for example, provide mountains of mathematical data that require interpretation.

31 min
Time, Change, and Novelty

17: Time, Change, and Novelty

An idea becomes a scientific idea when it functions in the context of a scientific explanation. The idea of time is an excellent example. If, as Plato claimed, both real knowledge and ultimate reality are timeless, then time is insignificant. However, by the 18th century, the idea of time was increasingly regarded as the dimension containing hope for an improvement in the human condition. This, in turn, prefigured 19th-century scientific ideas of time as both irreversible and significant.

32 min
The Atomic Theory of Matter

18: The Atomic Theory of Matter

The theory of the atom began as an extension of Parmenides's view of reality as ultimately changeless. John Dalton in the early 19th century used a theory of changeless atoms in his examination of chemical reactions, and atomism gained prominence thereafter even as the atom was discovered to be mainly empty space and composed of parts, each with distinct properties.

32 min
The Cell Theory of Life

19: The Cell Theory of Life

What is life? An 18th-century debate pitting mechanism against vitalism was resolved, literally, when new microscopes of the early 19th century were used to proclaim in the late 1830s that cells were the building blocks of all living things. The view that cells were the "atoms" of life, in turn, provoked a search for what within the cell is the essence of life.

32 min
The Germ Theory of Disease

20: The Germ Theory of Disease

The germ theory of disease is another instance of the atomistic style of thinking and the cornerstone of modern scientific medicine. The notion of disease caused by imbalances within the body was undermined when Pasteur and Koch showed how illness comes from the outside, an idea dating back to Hippocrates and the notion of miasmas. Resistance to the germ theory was understandable; some people had germs in their bodies but not the disease.

32 min
The Gene Theory of Inheritance

21: The Gene Theory of Inheritance

Gregor Mendel was trying to confirm a theory about evolution when his experiments with pea plants led him to realize that inheritance was owed to discrete units. Yet gene theory rests less on Mendel's work than on experiments with fruit flies showing that x-rays could alter parts of chromosomes. If x-rays could do that, then genes must be real.

32 min
Energy Challenges Matter

22: Energy Challenges Matter

In the 19th century, with the rise of the science of thermodynamics, energy assumed a parallel reality to matter. Like matter, energy was seen to take many forms but was conserved. Unlike matter, the idea of energy quickly stimulated process theories in which patterns and relationships were real.

32 min
Fields - The Immaterial Becomes Real

23: Fields - The Immaterial Becomes Real

Faraday's introduction of fields as elements of physical reality in the 19th century was a giant step for modern science. But the difficulty of formulating a plausible physical mechanism for how fields work led to Maxwell's equations of electrodynamics—and a view of scientific theories as capturing our experience of a process, rather than a final truth about objects.

32 min
Relationships Become Physical

24: Relationships Become Physical

Beginning in 1837, a few chemists came to believe that understanding a molecule required knowing not only what atoms the molecule had, but also the spatial relationships among those atoms. Pasteur relied on this insight; it forms one of the cornerstones of organic chemistry. The recognition of relationships as real also appeared in other 19th-century disciplines including symbolic logic, mathematics, and social science.

31 min
Evolution as Process Science

25: Evolution as Process Science

Evolution has proven to be a cross-disciplinary idea, bringing contingency into scientific explanation and showing how novelty can emerge. Evolution also entails making time, which moves in one direction only, a fundamental feature of reality.

32 min
Statistical Laws Challenge Determinism

26: Statistical Laws Challenge Determinism

Modern science was founded on determinism, but determinism was undermined by the recognition of probability in nature and by the claim that certain processes obeyed statistical laws. The kinetic theory of gases, thermodynamics, and radioactivity all showed that statistical laws had a place in scientific theory. This had far-reaching implications: If nature is probabilistic, then so, too, are theories and laws of nature.

32 min
Techno-Science Comes of Age

27: Techno-Science Comes of Age

A qualitative divide separates important 18th-century innovations in textiles, iron, and steam power from such 19th- and 20th-century innovations as electric power, plastics, and radio: The latter were made possible by science-informed engineering. Successful innovations became increasingly dependent on scientific knowledge and formally trained engineering—as well as supportive business acumen.

32 min
Institutions Empower Innovation

28: Institutions Empower Innovation

Moving beyond improved versions of what already existed, such as water power, innovations increasingly appeared that could never have existed without scientific knowledge. Western societies accelerated this development by creating institutions explicitly designed to promote science-based innovation, including widespread engineering education, new ways of organizing companies, and supportive government policies.

32 min
The Quantum Revolution

29: The Quantum Revolution

Quantum physics is the most revolutionary of 20th-century theories, and it is the most predictively successful physical theory ever. But it is still controversial as well as inconsistent with the general theory of relativity. Quantum mechanics imputes randomness, probability, and uncertainty to elementary physical processes. It redefines causality, space, time, matter, energy, the nature of scientific law and explanation, and the relationship between mind and world.

32 min
Relativity Redefines Space and Time

30: Relativity Redefines Space and Time

Einstein's special theory of relativity forced a reconceptualization of Newtonian space and time, and proclaimed that matter and energy could be converted into one another. The general theory even redefined physical reality at the cosmological level. The properties of space and time are determined by the distribution of matter and energy; space and time are really names of relationships, not separate in their own right.

32 min
Reconceiving the Universe, Again

31: Reconceiving the Universe, Again

In the 1920s, the scale of the universe changed dramatically with the discovery of thousands of galaxies beyond our Milky Way and the expansion of the universe. By 1963, the expanding universe was explained with a "big bang," and by 1980, an explanation of the big bang led to the proposal that the universe was unimaginably more vast than anything we could detect.

32 min
The Idea behind the Computer

32: The Idea behind the Computer

Alan Turing conceived of a machine that could solve any problem whose solution could be specified by a finite decision procedure, or algorithm. Turing recognized that increasingly powerful calculators could be reconceived as generalized problem-solving machines, even artificially intelligent machines. The computer went from being a calculator to a universal simulator.

31 min
Three Faces of Information

33: Three Faces of Information

Information is organized data, the content in which we are all awash. But information as conceived in Claude Shannon's mathematical theory of information is independent of content, an idea at the foundation of powerful information technologies that continue to change the world. Moreover, DNA and the new view of black holes as information structures, suggest, almost like something out of science fiction, that information seems to be physically real.

31 min
Systems, Chaos, and Self-Organization

34: Systems, Chaos, and Self-Organization

Atomistic thinking faces challenges from three closely related ideas from the 20th century: Phenomena are produced by systems; "chaotic" real-world systems are in fact orderly; and some systems are self-organizing. These systems display properties that aren't apparent in the properties of their individual constituents. That is, the wholes are more than the sums of their parts.

33 min
Life as Molecules in Action

35: Life as Molecules in Action

The molecular theory of life says that life can be fully explained in terms of molecules in action, using the concepts and the tools of physics and chemistry. The discovery that DNA molecules defined every life form on Earth sealed this shift. By the 1980s, the molecular theory of life was transforming medicine as well as the meaning of life.

33 min
Great Ideas, Past and Future

36: Great Ideas, Past and Future

Which scientific ideas will transform 21st-century life? Self-organization is fundamental to the emerging nanotechnology industry. Molecular biology and cognitive neuroscience continue their naturalization of human consciousness. Quantum chemistry makes possible molecular psychiatry and even molecular sociology. String theory controversially promises to unify the forces of nature into a comprehensive theory of everything.

33 min