The Floating University

Great Big Ideas Lectures

The Floating University's first course, Great Big Ideas, is composed of 12 professionally produced video lectures ranging from 40-60 minutes in length. Below is a listing of every subject covered by Great Big Ideas, presented in the order suggested by the syllabus. You can take in the material in the same progression as students at Harvard, Yale, and Bard, or skip around to best suit your interests. Click on a lecture title to jump to the full video, accompanied by supplementary materials prepared by experts to get the most out of every lecture.

All lecture videos are compatible with the iPad.

Malthus Miffed: Are People the Problem, the Solution, or Both? An Introduction to Demography and Populations Study Through an Examination of the World's Population.

JOEL COHEN, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Populations, Rockefeller University, Mathematical Biologist, Columbia University

In the next fifty years the world will face population problems that it has never faced before. Billions will live in mega slums without access to clean water or medical care. In his lecture, Professor Joel Cohen teaches you how demography can provide answers to the life or death questions caused by the world's swelling population and dwindling resources. Can we prevent an outcome where wealthy western countries are in permanent population decline, while third world cities into swell into massively overcrowded slums with no access to education, healthcare, or hope?


The Universe in a Nutshell: The Physics of Everything.

MICHIO KAKU, Henry Semat Professor of Theoretical Physics at CUNY

What if we could find one single equation that explains every force in the universe? Dr. Michio Kaku explores how physicists may shrink the science of the Big Bang into an equation as small as Einstein's "e=mc^2." Thanks to advances in string theory, physics may allow us to escape the heat death of the universe, explore the multiverse, and unlock the secrets of existence. While firing up our imaginations about the future, Kaku also presents a succinct history of physics and makes a compelling case for why physics is the key to pretty much everything.


Of the People, by the People, for the People? The Rawls-Nozick Debates as an Introduction to the Philosophy of Politics and Economics.

TAMAR GENDLER, Department of Philosophy Chair at Yale University, Cognitive Scientist

Who gets what and who says so? These two questions underlie and inform every social arrangement from the resolution of schoolyard squabbles to the meta-structure of human societies. They are also the basis of political philosophy. Professor Tamar Gendler uses the work of three titans of the discipline, Thomas Hobbes, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick, as a lens to guide us through the taut debate about the role of government in society, asking "Will we embrace the radical state of nature or will we surrender our freedom to the leviathan of the state?"


Say What? Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain.

STEVEN PINKER, Psychologist, Cognitive Scientist, and Linguist at Harvard University

How did humans acquire language? In this eSeminar, best-selling author Steven Pinker introduces you to linguistics, the evolution of spoken language, and the debate over the existence of an innate universal grammar. He also explores why language is such a fundamental part of social relationships, human biology, and human evolution. Finally, Pinker touches on the wide variety of applications for linguistics, from improving how we teach reading and writing to how we interpret law, politics, and literature.


Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200: Monopolies as an Introduction to Economics.

SAUL LEVMORE, William B. Graham Distinguished Professor of Law at The University of Chicago

In the study of economics, the big questions recapitulate the little ones. If you think about the cost of a chocolate chip cookie or how airline ticket pricing works and you do so rigorously with an inquisitive mind, you will soon enough gain insight into how the whole world really operates. From the basics of pricing, demand, and competition to global politics and the future of government, Professor Levmore makes it easy to see economics at work all around us.


The Psychology of Everything: What Compassion, Racism, and Sex tell us about Human Nature.

PAUL BLOOM, Cognitive Psychologist, Yale University

Give Paul Bloom one hour, and he’ll teach you "the psychology of everything," illustrating some of the most fundamental elements of human nature through case studies about compassion, racism, and sex. He discusses some of the biggest questions in the nature versus nurture debate, including "Are we hard-wired to care about others?" Bloom points out why stereotyping can be both detrimental and beneficial, and he even explains what the porn preference of monkeys tells us about our own sexual choosiness, or lack thereof. After the hour is up you'll understand why Bloom calls psychology, because of its cross-disciplinary nature, "the perfect liberal arts major."


If You're So Free, Why Do You Follow Others? The Sociological Science Behind Social Networks and Social Influence.

NICHOLAS CHRISTAKIS, Professor of Medical Sociology, Medicine, and Sociology at Harvard University

If you think you’re in complete control of your destiny or even your own actions, you’re wrong. Every choice you make, every behavior you exhibit, and even every desire you have finds its roots in the social universe. Nicholas Christakis explains why individual actions are inextricably linked to sociological pressures; whether you’re absorbing altruism performed by someone you’ll never meet or deciding to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, collective phenomena affect every aspect of your life. By the end of the lecture Christakis has revealed a startling new way to understand the world that ranks sociology as one of the most vitally important social sciences.


Who Wants to Be a Billionaire? Everything You Need to Know About Finance and Investing in Under an Hour.

WILLIAM ACKMAN, Activist Investor and Hedge-Fund Manager

We all want to be financially stable and enjoy a well-funded retirement, and we don't want to throw out our hard earned money on poor investments. But most of us don't know the first thing about finance and investing. In this eSeminar, acclaimed value investor William Ackman, teaches you what it takes to finance and grow a successful business and how to make sound investments that will grant you to a cash-comfy retirement.


What's Up, Doc? Is Biomedical Research Really Close to Curing Anything?

DOUGLAS MELTON, Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences at Harvard University

A century ago, people would suffer and die from what we now consider routine bacterial infections. With the discovery of penicillin, a miracle occurred where it became possible to cure people who previously had been left for dead. We’re now at the edge of a similar revolution due to remarkable innovations in the field of regenerative biology. In his lecture, Dr. Douglas Melton introduces the astounding advances being made today to unlock the powerful potential hidden within our own cells. Cloning, regeneration, “man-made” stem cells, an end to aging as we know it; these may all sound like science fiction, but they're closer than you think!


Art Now: Aesthetics Across Music, Painting, Architecture, Movies, and More.

LEON BOTSTEIN, Conductor, President of Bard College

President Leon Botstein of Bard College steps boldly into the fray to answer one of the most enduring human questions: What is art? This discussion spills over into debates about art's value to society –– whether access to the arts is right as basic as education or health care, and whether it should be assessed and supported by government or left to the "invisible hand" of the free market. President Botstein explains why it is essential to ask these questions and offers a sturdy basis for evaluating them. He goes so far as to suggest that engaging with art can give our lives meaning and purpose. 


Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Essential Value of a Classic Education.

JEFFREY BRENZEL, Philosopher, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University

Dean Brenzel argues that not only can reading the great classics like Plato's Republic and Dante's Inferno enrich your education, it can actually make your life better. Pointing out that we can't possibly read all of the books in the world, Brenzel makes a case for reading the right books the right way in order to get the most intellectual bang for your reading buck. Which books qualify as the "right" books is one of the most controversial subjects in academia, and Brenzel outlines the five key characteristics that every great book must fulfill in order to make that coveted list.


The Authority of Ideas: Decoding the DNA of Education in Search of Actual Knowledge.

LAWRENCE SUMMERS, Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard University, Economist, Former President of Harvard

What will historians say about us 250 years from now? Larry Summers, former Harvard University president and economic adviser to President Obama, asks this question in a thought-provoking eSeminar about the evolution of ideas and the critical importance of education in an increasingly multi-faceted world. This will be a moment in history when the world evolved from a world governed by the idea of authority to a world governed by the authority of ideas, says Summers. Then he tells you how to be a part of the next great revolution.