Prof in a Box

By Sean Carroll | September 4, 2007 1:16 pm

teachingcompany.jpg Thomas Benton, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, describes the process by which the Teaching Company produces its recorded college-level courses for popular consumption:

[L]ecturers are chosen on the basis of “teaching awards, published evaluations of professors, newspaper write-ups of the best teachers on campus, and other sources.” Selected professors are invited to give a sample lecture, which is then reviewed by the company’s regular customers. The most favored professors are brought to a special studio near Washington, where their lecture series is recorded and filmed.

It all sounds rather exciting, like the academic equivalent of being discovered in a coffee shop by a Hollywood casting director.

Yes indeed! And there I was, last April, toiling away at Teaching Company World Headquarters in Chantilly, Virginia, to produce a set of lectures on cosmology and particle physics. These are now available as Dark Matter, Dark Energy: The Dark Side of the Universe, a series of 24 half-hour lectures aimed at anyone with a DVD player and a smidgen of curiosity about the natural world. In plenty of time for Christmas, I may add.

Even though the lectures are nominally about dark matter and dark energy, I used them as an excuse to cover lots of fun stuff about general relativity, particle physics within and beyond the Standard Model, and the early universe. Here is the lecture outline:

  1. Fundamental Building Blocks
  2. The Smooth, Expanding Universe
  3. Space, Time, and Gravity
  4. Cosmology in Einstein’s Universe
  5. Galaxies and Clusters
  6. Gravitational Lensing
  7. Atoms and Particles
  8. The Standard Model of Particle Physics
  9. Relic Particles from the Big Bang
  10. Primordial Nucleosynthesis
  11. The Cosmic Microwave Background
  12. Dark Stars and Black Holes
  13. WIMPs and Supersymmetry
  14. The Accelerating Universe
  15. The Geometry of Space
  16. Smooth Tension and Acceleration
  17. Vacuum Energy
  18. Quintessence
  19. Was Einstein Right?
  20. Inflation
  21. Strings and Extra Dimensions
  22. Beyond the Observable Universe
  23. Future Experiments
  24. The Past and Future of the Dark Side

The Teaching Company does a great job with production, so there are plenty of riveting graphics along the way. The actual lectures are given in a tiny studio in front of just a couple of people, which is not my preferred mode of speaking; I much prefer to have a real audience that will laugh and furrow their brows in puzzlement, as appropriate. So I don’t think my delivery was as sprightly as it could have been, especially in the first couple of lectures when I was getting used to the process. But there’s always the content, I suppose. And I wear a variety of fetching jackets and ties throughout the lectures, so in addition to deep insights about the workings of the universe, you also get a fashion show.

If cosmology isn’t your thing, the Teaching Company has an impressive array of courses on all sorts of stuff, from ancient history to modern jazz. It’s been getting good reviews, such as a recent Wall Street Journal article that refers to we lecturers as “reputable and often quite talented,” which I think is good. As Benton goes on to say:

Even as more and more people find higher education financially out of reach, or impractical to continue beyond early adulthood, recorded lectures — combined with the increasing availability of online lecture content and Web resources like the Wikipedia and countless blogs — are bringing on the Golden Age of the autodidact. I can’t help thinking that Diderot would approve, and I wish academe would do more to encourage such activities.

I’m sure Diderot would indeed approve, if he could just figure out how to work the remote on the DVD player.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Personal
  • Joe Bolte

    As an attendee of two of Sean’s classes (Moments in Atheism and Spacetime & Blackholes), I am sure this set is worth whatever exorbitant price they are asking. Go out and get it.

  • Maynard Handley

    ” I wish academe would do more to encourage such activities.”

    Well sure, we all would, but be freaking fair here. The extent to which US universities have made REALLY good lectures and courses available online is nothing short of astonishing. I’d give particularly high marks to Berkeley for putting course lectures online, while when it comes to one-off lectures Princeton is probably head of the pack, but with a number of worthy competitors like Yale and UChicago. Vanderbilt gets points for trying hard, and loses points for having some moron operate their podcast as incompetently as you could possibly imagine.

    Having said that, I think there’s no harm in pointing out the many US institutions doing a lousy job in this regard. Harvard is especially pathetic, with pretty much nothing available except from IOP (Institute of Politics, most of whose lectures are given by politicians and are thus, as you’d expect, basically content-free). MIT and Caltech both deserve very low marks for making lectures available — but only in streaming form, not as downloads, and not via podcasts. My personal alma mater, Cornell, appears completely unaware that is 2007, not 1887.

    As a more general point, the US is showing, in this regard, once again why it pummels the rest of the world when it comes to cultural “imperialism”. I am aware of very very few non-US institutions that are doing anything worthwhile in this regard.
    In Canada there is UBC, but most of what they podcast is PR crap, not actually worthwhile lectures.
    In Australia you have Melbourne sending out the occasional lecture, but mostly low-level “lectures for the public”, not the good stuff, lectures aimed at faculty; compare with Australia’s UWA which deliberately prevents anyone outside Australia from getting at their material.
    In Singapore NUS is like UWA, preventing outsiders from getting their stuff — particularly ironic since I suspect Singapore, given half a chance, would complain loudly about US cultural hegemony.
    Britain is starting to ramp up in this regard, with stuff from Bath, Imperial College and Warwick that I know of; unfortunately, like the Australian model, most of what they offer is the low-level “public outreach” stuff, not the stuff anyone educated would actually care about. Gresham College is halfway — some of their stuff is quite reasonable in its level of interest but they, fairly pointedly, do not podcast it although at least you can (usually) download it.

    The bottom line
    (1) Don’t complain about “academe”. Complain about the organizations that suck, and praise those that are doing a great job.
    (2) If you refuse to make your message easily available, don’t come crying fifteen years later when you learn that people have, instead, been absorbing someone else’s message. This same point goes for political organizations where, for the most part, right wing think tanks have been far more organized than left wing in first making media available for free, and then in making it available via podcast.

    [Ob advertisements:

    (1) The Teaching Company does produce some truly great stuff. Not all — I tried, for example, a course in English Literature and, no matter how good the lecturer was, I found I just did not believe in this way of viewing the world.
    (Hubert Dreyfus, on the other hand, at Berkeley, has a fantastic course on western literature, based on, IMHO, a much more realistic interpretation of literature.)
    On the other hand, Robert Oden’s Teaching Company course on The Old Testament, not something I expected to find very interesting, is simply astonishingly good — particularly to someone non-religious like myself.

    (2) if you’re interested in good audio content aimed at a level higher than high-school and PBS, my blog consists of pretty much nothing but pointers and recommendations to such.

  • Paul Stankus

    I’m sure that seeing Sean’s lectures will be a great experience, as well as a great value: a whole course, expertly delivered, for less than one day’s tuition at Caltech! The quandry now, is: once I’ve saved up enough money skipping lunches, should I buy Sean’s cosmology lectures or the GR textbook first?

    For cosmology fans without the scratch, or who are just too impatient to wait for delivery, let me — in an act of shameless self-promotion — offer you a slightly lower-falutin’ alternative , free and available immediately. Earlier this summer a short set of five lectures on Introductory Cosmology were delivered at the Brookhaven Lab. These are now publicly available, and should be accessible to anyone with a physics background. They’re not a substitute for Sean’s fuller, more expert work (and higher TC production values), but might serve to whet your appetite.

    Streaming video (RealPlayer) can be found here, under the title “Cosmology For Beginners”:

    Slides are available here:

    And the course outline is here:

    I appreciate all comments, questions and other feedback. Happy viewing, and be sure to upgrade to Sean as soon as you can.

    Paul Stankus

  • Joe Fitzsimons

    As a more general point, the US is showing, in this regard, once again why it pummels the rest of the world when it comes to cultural “imperialism”. I am aware of very very few non-US institutions that are doing anything worthwhile in this regard.

    You seem to have a somewhat one-sided view of this. For example, the Perimeter Institute in Canada has video of basically all the talks given there available online:

    The Vega science trust in the UK also has a wide array of very interesting talks and lectures available online, including 4 Feynmann lectures:

    There are plenty of other places. These are just the first two that I thought of.

  • Maynard Handley

    You seem to have a somewhat one-sided view of this. For example, the Perimeter Institute in Canada has video of basically all the talks given there available online:

    The Vega science trust in the UK also has a wide array of very interesting talks and lectures available online, including 4 Feynmann lectures:


    You didn’t read my post very carefully, did you?
    Vega is of zero interest to me. I’m not going to say whether or not it performs a valuable service; I’ll simply point out that it almost everything there is targetted at about a high school level and is thus not what I am interested in.

    Perimeter’s web site is garbage, and this is a widely shared opinion. Among other flaws, the talks are only streaming, no downloads. They are not organized in chronological order and there is no RSS feed (let alone a podcast), so it’s impossible to know what’s been added since the last time you visisted.

    Finally I would point out that the world is larger than science. My post was a general statement about sophisticated talks, not about science, let alone physics talks.
    It doesn’t much matter whether you listen to talks about cosmology hosted at MIT or the University of Beijing. The point about the source matters rather more when what you are listening to is talks about politics, law, or business (and even something like history). If the bulk of the lectures one’s population can easily download on the subject of law or business come from America, you can hardly be surprised when one’s next generation see the world, for better or worse, as structured according to the implicit assumptions of American law and business.

  • Joe Fitzsimons

    Maynard: Personally I find the PI site extremely good. The talks are all linked off the relevant conferences or events, which is exactly where you’d expect them. They are largely conference talks, so if you want to see a talk on quantum foundations, go look up the quantum foundations summer school, or any one of the foundations sections of conferences held there. If you want to see QIP, go look that up, etc, etc.

    The Vega Trust talks are certainly public outreach, but I wouldn’t call them unsophisticated.

    The only talks I tend to watch online are science talks, which is why my examples are in that area.

    Law talks, as in you example, are less useful in different countries, as laws can differ quite drastically. Science is one discipline that truly universal in that it is identical, no matter where you live.

    There probably are examples from lots of other disciplines, as I say, I only pay attention to the scientific talks.

    So as regards scientific video content, you might want to check out Nature, MPG, CERN and DESY.

  • Maynard Handley

    (1) Regarding PI.
    This is the computer age, you know. You can provide plenty of different views on the same material — it’s not like filing physical books in a library. For an example of an organization that’s doing the same job of PI, but doing it RIGHT, look at KITP.

    (2) To assume that the study of Law is the study of specific laws is a remarkably limited viewpoint. For your own sake you should listen to a few talks by law faculty at different organizations. You can go through life mouthing the ridiculous platitudes `oi polloi state about lawyers and the law (simultaneously bemoaning the ignorance of the voting public) or you can invest a few hours in getting a feeling for the reality of law.
    To the extent that an astronomer, a physicist and a chemist all have a common appreciation of the world based in natural science, so too there is a common world view in law. You may or may not agree with it, but you really should acquaint yourself with it.

    (3) Regarding Vega. Would you, personally, someone who listens to talks from PI, listen to talks from Vega? If so, you clearly have far too much free time.
    And if you wouldn’t listen to them, why recommend them? The biggest problem of our time is not finding generic stuff, it’s finding the good stuff, the stuff appropriate to a specific situation. What makes google a better search engine than Alta Vista is that Google (to put it simply) provides me with FEWER references (ideally all I care about is the first page of them) than Alta Vista.
    (Not to mention that Vega, like PI, doesn’t have downloads and has a lousy, non-temporal organization.)

  • Neil B.

    Yes, I’ve done teaching and Museum docenting, and there’s something special about someone really talking and showing you things, not just reading a book. This sounds like a great project. (Internet moving graphics compete with lecture-shows better than books do, but they lack the real human element.) BTW I have heard of special compression SW so you can view an hour’s worth in say 40 minutes to save time (and keep the pitch the same) but I don’t see it around much – anyone know what works?
    (PS: It has been proven that we can, and certainly learn to, understand such speeded up productions to a remarkable degree.)

  • Joe Fitzsimons


    Re (1): Clearly there is no accounting for taste so we may well disagree on whether we like the feel of the PI site, and how we rate its functionality. I like it, and find it extremely useful, as it allows me to find specific conference taks given by specific people easily. That’s exactly what I want from such a site.

    Re (2): I know that some areas of law are very broad, transcending the actually laws themselves. Other areas focus on specific laws in great detail. There is a reason that passing the New York bar does not qualify you to practice law in the UK.

    Re (3):

    Would you, personally, someone who listens to talks from PI, listen to talks from Vega?

    Yes, and I’ll go you one further. As someone who has given one of the talks stored on the PI site, I have watched all 4 of Richard Feynman’s talks. I am to young to have seen him talk live, so finding the Vega site made me very happy.

    I resent your assertion that this means I must have too much time on my hands. I own a copy of all three volumes of the Feynman lectures (the books), despite the fact that they are aimed at a different audience and expect that many other physicist do too. Watching the lectures on Vega is the video equivalent of owning the books.

  • Joe Fitzsimons

    Actually, two other good sources of video lectures are the Royal Society video archive (UK): , and the Nobel Prize Lectures (Sweden):

  • magma


    What’s so bad about streaming video? I prefer it to having to download a whole file. After all, in real life I don’t go to the same lecture twice, and real life doesn’t even have a pause button.

    Streaming hasn’t hurt Youtube’s popularity or usefulness.

  • TomC

    Am I the only one who saw this post title and thought “Justin Timberlake”?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    19. Was Einstein Right?

    About what?

  • JJ


    19. Was Einstein Right?

    About what?

    Not wearing socks?

  • Belizean

    Maynard Handley wrote:

    “Iā€™d give particularly high marks to Berkeley for putting course lectures online…”

    Where did you find these? I could only find their colloquia and UCTV.

  • Spiv

    Congratulations on the lecture series. I’ve used a number of TTC’s lectures over the years to help broaden my understanding (I refuse to only get one instructor’s version of anything), and I’ll definitely be getting this series.

    And TomC: I feel confident in answering your question with a firm “Yes.”

  • MJ

    I’m impressed by my recent exposure to a Teaching Company class. Very accessible, since all courses go on sale at least annually.

    And what would a course be, without student commentary?

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  • TBB

    I saw your course and name on the cover of the catalogue I got yesterday. Good for you that you are a chosen professor! There’s a 3-page write-up about the course which looks interesting. I see there’s also a Dark Matter, Dark Energy, Superstring Theory & Particle Physics (Set) with Steven Pollack, whose DVD and course books I bought and enjoyed. I found I learn more when I watch and scribble notes as in a classroom. (He did not wear suits and ties, but I can tell you what color shirts and style pants look best on him, and after 24 lectures I think I developed a crush, sorry to say.) šŸ˜‰

    I think The TC does a very good job; they send me emails with my local cultural events such as lectures, museum exhibits, book signings, etc. plus free essays and downloads on various topics. The local university has non-credit courses of this nature but they are several hundred dollars. $69.95 is reasonable, they are cleanly produced and the professors’ credentials are top-notch. (I think Wolfson does a good job too, btw.) The TC also asks for a lot of feedback on every aspect of their material including catalogue design.

    I don’t mean to be tacky, but I’m curious what the professors get out of it – are you allowed to talk about that? Do you get royalties when people purchase your DVD set? Just curious how it works. I’d love to buy more of these when funds allow – I’m sure yours is great since you are apparently “relaxed, eloquent, wryly funny and brimming with ideas…” :-)

  • Sean

    TBB, you do get paid royalties when people buy the lectures, otherwise few people would do it. But, as is often the case with these kinds of things, when you divide by the number of hours it takes to prepare and give and tidy up the lectures, you realize that it’s not all that lucrative.

  • Pingback: Prof in a box: give the gift of knowledge « Later On()

  • anonymous snowboarder

    sean – apologies if i missed it somewhere, but at what level would you say this lecture set is at? general audience? undergrad math/physics? higher? thanks

  • Sean

    The idea is they are for a general audience. Think a university-level survey course — “Dark Energy for Poets.”

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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