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Is Anti-Gravity Possible? Brian Greene's WSU Has The Answer

Master science communicator Brian Greene shares the spotlight with Muppet scientist Dr. Bunsen Honeydew ahead of the 2008 World Science Festival in New York City.
Master science communicator Brian Greene shares the spotlight with Muppet scientist Dr. Bunsen Honeydew ahead of the 2008 World Science Festival in New York City.

By now you've probably heard about Neil deGrasse Tyson's reboot of Cosmos, running every Sunday night on FOX (yes, that FOX) for the last few weeks. It was a controversial step to take Carl Sagan's beloved early 1980s-era tour of the universe and revamp it for the modern era. According to most reviews (and an informal poll of my astrophysicist colleagues), so far it looks like Neil is doing St. Carl (as I like to think of him) proud, giving a whole new generation of viewers a big picture view of ... well ... the big picture.

But what happens after the last eye-popping rendering of the Milky Way fades from viewers' flat-screens and Tyson's teardrop-shaped starship sails off into the distance? Where do folks turn who — like the monk-philosopher Giordano Bruno featured in episode 1 — are hungry to learn even more?

The answer is simple. Once their journey with Neil is over they can begin a new one with Brian. That's Brian Greene, the string-theorist-turned-writer who, along with Tyson, is one of the few people in the world who can honestly lay claim to the title "super-famous scientist." This month Greene launched the World Science U (WSU) with the goal of offering an online destination for people with big questions and an appetite for big answers.

The depth of the answers depends on a visitor's time-budget and mathematical inclination. WSU offers 3 levels of instruction. The first is what Greene and his team call "Science Unplugged." These are short, informal videos of Green answering questions like "Why does Time flow?" and "What is Schrodinger's Cat." The next level is called "Short Courses." These are 2-to-3 week non-mathematical explorations of topics like quantum physics and special relativity. Finally there are "University Courses" which are full on, "yes-there-is-a-lot-of-math" introductions to the material offered in the Short Courses.

Both the Short and University Courses are driven by Greene's video lectures. Supporting the lectures are review questions, "office hours" (in which Greene deals with the issues which invariably pop-up with this kind of material) and, most importantly, interactive demonstrations of the material. These kinds of interactives can be essential for wrapping your mind around some of the most vexing ideas in modern physics (like how time slows down for a moving observer relative to a stationary one).

Having just completed a MOOC (a massively open online course) myself, I can testify as to how hard it is do these kinds of online educational efforts well. More importantly, having once owned an e-learning company that produced physics interactives for college textbooks, I have also seen how hard it can be to get those right or marry them correctly to the rest of the class material. Looking over the product Greene and his team of programmers and videographers have put together, I am impressed and hopeful.

There is an enormous amount of WSU material to explore. Greene's passion for his subject is obvious in his lectures. The interactives are purposely sparse to focus on the ideas presented and they seem to work well with the rest of the lectures. My one complaint would be Greene's philosophical take on some of the answers presented in the Science Unplugged modules. I don't share his enthusiasm for string theory, among other things. But that's a discussion for a different day.

In terms of simply learning about relativity or quantum physics — there is a lot of worthwhile WSU territory to explore.

Many online options now exist for folks wishing to go beyond TV programs like NOVA. MOOCs are one option and sites like the wonderful Kahn Academy are another. What Greene and his team are offering is a version of online learning from a skilled science-popularizer and a skilled scientist. The production values and integration are also higher than what a typical Coursera course can offer.

I will be very interested to hear about the experiences of anyone in the 13.7 community who works through a WSU course. From an instructor's point of view, WSU seems off to a promising start.

You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @AdamFrank4

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Corrected: April 7, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
This commentary originally identified WSU as "World Science University." The name, in fact, is "World Science U."